There are a lot of amazing graphic novels that I would love to talk about but Skim, like The March, really makes you feel the experience of someone-probably-not-you. It builds empathy in readers for a novel situation, which is what I’ve been going on about all month. And it is breathtakingly illustrated.
I first read it while studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts. One of my teachers there was the book’s editor and I was focused on studying graphic novels and how to put them together. But this book has stayed with me for a number of reasons. Perhaps most because I was once a troubled teen in love with my drama teacher. It’s not a story you see told often.
“Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school in the early ’90s. When her classmate Katie Matthews is dumped by her boyfriend, who then kills himself — possibly because he’s (maybe) gay — the entire school goes into mourning overdrive. It’s a weird time to fall in love, but that’s what happens to Skim when she starts meeting secretly with her neo-hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer. But then Ms. Archer abruptly leaves the school, and Skim has to cope with her confusion and isolation while her best friend, Lisa, tries to pull her into “real” life by setting up a hilarious double-date for the school’s semi formal. Suicide, depression, love, homosexuality, crushes, cliques of popular, manipulative peers — the whole gamut of teen life is explored in this poignant glimpse into the heartache of being 16.
Like every book I talk about on here, this book speaks to kids who struggle in one way or another or don’t have an easy time of it. There is school bullying, depression, Gay stuff . . . the MC is overweight, a racial minority, and a self-described freak. Not someone who is having an easy time of it. Sort of like The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner. But there’s more to Skim than that.
The situation is not one that I have seen portrayed elsewhere. SPOILER ALERT: She kisses her (female) teacher, and then she has to deal with the reality and the emotional repercussions of that. I think that the folks who made and published this book had some courage. But I also think that non-traditional, sort of heart-breaking stories like this are coming out in Graphic Novel format far more often than in traditional all-text stories. And the illustrations really do something powerful here. You can see in the pictures that Skim looks different from her classmates. You can see that she carries herself hunched over–you are literally seeing her discomfort with herself and in her world. And you can see her affection for her teacher and her desire to be something other than she is.
I think any good book transports us into the mind and the heart of someone other than ourself. I think that’s a big part of the point of literature. But as Andrew Aydin said in his interview here a few days ago comics are powerful. We live our lives visually, but unlike movies, graphic novels leave something to the imagination. And when done well, they transport us into the minds and hearts of people wholly different from us, in some cases, in a way that no other medium can do. Skim is a wonderful example of that.