Picture Scene: Your run of the mill street in suburbia. The weather, sunny and blue skies. Suddenly, rising out of the sewer, a woman we come to know as Betsy. In punk pink, the words, “Girl Town,” are scrawled overhead. Is this Girl Town, or a town under siege, about to become Girl Town? However you interpret Betsy’s ready-for-anything stance, the cover for Carolyn Nowak’s Girl Town is a rush of empowerment that leaves you ready to get up and join the cause. The same is true for all five stories contained within Nowak’s new book.
Starting with “Girl Town“, a love story that Hey Arnold’s Helga would be proud of, affection is shown by instigating a feud between two houses. Full of over the top reprisals dished out with exaggerated zeal, these neighbors have gone to war and not even childhood toys are safe. The rivalry was set off by our narrator, yet she amusingly slips in a compliment towards one of the enemy, and the way the story turns towards the end is effortlessly cool. ‘Purple’ scale coloring (Lisa DuBois and Luke Healy provide color assistance) gives the story a rough edge but it’s much more fun than brutal, and the unspoken question posed at the end reverberates quietly.
All of the stories are catapulted by rich details that take advantage of the chance to present a new normal without fuss. In “Girl Town,” one of the girl groups was intended to go into space and in “Radishes” all of the characters appear dressed for a fantasy adventure. The colors are medieval and have a waxed car gleam. Kelly and Beth have skipped school to go to the River’s Edge Market. Nothing about the premise is fancy yet Nowak is able to extract a lot of enjoyment from the set-up and a favorite scene uses lettering as a protective shield to stand up for a friend.
This goes for all of the stories as well but there’s a strong undercurrent of body positivity. For anyone who’s ever felt self-conscious pulling on a pair of jeans and seeing a fold of skin roll out, Nowak’s characters are wearing crop tops and confident. Girl Town features a variety of different body types, genders, and sexualities. No one is being pitted against each other (Girl Town is female positive without needing to drag down guys) and it’s done, not for kudos, but as a reflection of real life.
In “Diana’s Electric Tongue,” Diana buys a robot companion to recover from a broken heart. Her roommate isn’t completely comfortable with it but there’s no shame or judgement, as Diana wrangles with the different quandaries that come up whenever conversation swings back to artificial intelligence. When she first buys Harbor, he’s like an adult toy, with accessory catalogs. Diana sleeps inside the box he came in, but after Harbor gets activated things are different. Diana goes back to sleeping in her bed, while Harbor charges in his box. Nowak has these neat panels where the walls are peeled back so you can see into multiple rooms at once and the title of the story provides a focal point that might not be the obvious choice.
In an interesting exercise in form, “The Big Burning House” envisions a podcast episode as a comic. It’s the third episode and a listener has already found a copy of the lost film they’ve been talking about on VHS. It’s the build-up before turning it on and Nowak uses recognizable web-sites to catch readers up on research, while the podcasters’ disembodied voices weave around the outside.
A final story, “Please Sleep Over,” follows a couple who are house-sitting. The house belongs to Jess’ dad and there are horror elements as well as unresolved issues with Jess’ parents. Recently through a divorce, and now in a relationship with Gwen, being back home causes a lot of feelings to come to the surface.
None of the stories in Girl Town are the same except in quality and the encouraging tone that pervades throughout. Available September 25th from Top Shelf, don’t be the last one to visit Girl Town.