This One Summer
This One Summer begins with a brief flashback of a sleeping young girl being carried by her father to a lakeside cottage. It’s a beautifully illustrated sequence that succinctly evokes that particular nostalgia for the lazy summer days of childhood: the ending of the school term, building sandcastles on the beach, feeling the heat of the sun and being blinded by the glare reflected of the water, floating on its surface or being allowing to be engulfed by its murky depths, collecting pebbles and seashells by the shore, exploring the woods and hearing the leaves underfoot being crushed, staying up late unsupervised to watch movies or swap gossip or tell scary ghost stories. Creators (and cousins) Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki certainly capture all this within their latest collaboration. But they also dig beneath the surface to fashion a story of personal growth, nascent sexuality, the inexorable dissolution of longstanding relationships, and the end of innocence. The narrative slowly unfolds through scenes composed of quiet reflection, meaningless distractions, chance meetings, short elliptical conversations, with the occasional flare-up for emphasis.
But above all else is how the story is told through stunning artwork. TOS might be the most gorgeous-looking comic book I’ve read to come out in 2014. As an illustrator Jillian is noteworthy for her lushly detailed drawing style with its varied, organic lines realized with supple brushwork. She compliments it here with delicate blue washes that work to capture the sensuality of the book’s idyllic setting. The inviting waters of the lake, the inky sky at night, the dampness of the summer rain, the quaint houses, the coolness of the shade, or the deep shadow of the verdant undergrowth. But the monochromatic color palette also serves to express a certain narrative ambiguity. The mood can subtly modulate from placid to melancholic, or from comforting to a little threatening, within an instant.
Jillian’s characters posses a slightly cartoony look that reminds me of a more nuanced version of Craig Thompson. They’re rendered with an economy of features to help distinguish them from the richly textured backgrounds. The book’s POV character is Rose, an only child who spends every summer with her parents at their residence located on the small resort town of Awago. Her usual summer companion is another girl named Windy. Based on the way Rose reminisces about them, these trips were enjoyable family vacations. But both girls are now on the cusp of adolescence, though Rose is slightly older and much lankier. While she’s beginning to notice the teenage boys around her, the cherubic Windy still views them as freaks and clings to girlish pursuits. This small contrast is mirrored in Rose’s own parents. The more stoutly built and voluble Evan seems determined that everyone have fun during their time at Awago. The introverted and tightly wound Alice is an older, more exasperated version of Rose. Her body inexplicably emaciated, her thin hair swept back and messily arranged, her face taught with worry, and the round glasses she wears form a mask which she sometimes uses to withdraw from the world.
It would be easy to blame Alice for much of the conflict that takes place in the book. And that’s what the uncomprehending Rose initially does. Events take a turn for the worse when Alice receives a visit from her vivacious sister and brother-in-law. His attempts to coax Alice out of her shell end disastrously, resulting in an impasse between Alice and Evan. This causes a rift to develop between her and Rose, heartbreakingly portrayed by their subsequent verbal exchanges in which Alice refuses to look at her daughter. The strain it puts on their relationship negatively impacts the way Rose conducts herself around other people, especially an older boy whom she's been secretly crushing on named Dunc. When a scandal involving him and his girlfriend threatens to erupt, Rose instinctively comes to his defence by formulating some unforgiving ideas about women's sexual promiscuity. This precipitates her first argument over gender politics with Windy. But this isn’t a book with any obviously labelled heroes and villains, just flawed individuals whose needs don’t always align with each other simply because they’re family. The root of Alice’s depression does eventually become discernible to the reader. And it’s a credit to Mariko’s abilities as a writer that both adults and children come across as sympathetic characters in the end.
If there’s a flaw to the book, it’s in the attempt to weave all the various plot threads by tying them together into a satisfactory conclusion. It’s the one part of the book in which the generally relaxed nature of the narrative starts to let slip some of the crinkles, and the emotional content swerves close to melodramatic territory. But this is a minor complaint when compared to the many pleasures of TOS. The book manages to distill the vivid emotions and fuzzy memories associated with the season without falling into the trap of becoming over-sentimental.