Grooving To The Beat Of Fantagraphics’ I Am Young

by Rachel Bellwoar

Located in Edinburgh, the Greenfriars Bobby Fountain (in the book “Greenfriars” has an apostrophe) commemorates a dog that stood over its owner’s grave until joining him fourteen years later. In M. Dean’s graphic novel, I Am Young, the fountain is where Miriam and George share their first kiss. While their relationship doesn’t exactly follow the fourteen-year time table established by the dog, it is, as the back of the book warns, going to end, meaning the value of their story doesn’t come from seeing a couple living happily ever after, but from seeing their stories being allowed to come to different ends.

I Am Young isn’t solely about Miriam and George, but their relationship is the one that Dean checks in on periodically. Running from 1964 (when they attend the same Beatles concert) to 2001 (after George Harrison’s death), the common theme of Dean’s book is music and the way we associate certain relationships with singers or bands. Before Miriam there’s “Joanie,” a story probably set in the early 60’s (Dean doesn’t always give a specific date, but you can usually pick up on the year from context clues, and the entries run in chronological order) but where you can see the 50’s influence lingering on. Joanie is wearing a monogrammed sweater and helping her dad pack for a move. The pages of this section are slightly yellowed, which further works to date it, and I like that the beginning plays with gender stereotypes, where the first few panels are close-ups of Joanie’s father’s hands cooking eggs, but I assumed it was Joanie’s mother.

“Baby Fat” follows Roberta’s life after she gets married in a Las Vegas chapel to a man she barely knows in a vain attempt to help him avoid the draft. They drive to the motel together, but Roberta drives back alone and after Pepe goes to Vietnam she finds herself keeping his house and trying to figure out what it means to be, at the age of 18, an independent, modern, American woman and working girl.

Dean’s use of templates take her stories to the next level. Each page of “Greenfriar’s” is divided like a privacy screen. When Miriam and George are apart, the top half tells Miriam’s story, while the bottom half tells George’s. When they’re together, the two halves merge but remain in vertical columns. While at the same concert, for example, they’re on opposite ends of the room but Dean expertly conveys this using white space and chatter to pinpoint their locations in the crowd.

Continuing this dual narrative, each page has a line from a letter that Miriam wrote to George on the top and a line from a letter that George wrote to Miriam on the bottom. One complete letter comes out of each time Dean spends time with the couple and when you’re not sure who they’re being addressed to, they read like fan letters to the Beatles. While the first letters show Miriam and George to be on the same page, the second letters start to show discord, and it’s another way of tracking their relationship’s ups and downs.

“Baby Fats” pages are divided into 4 x 3 rows of boxes. When Pepe sends Roberta a letter, each box contains a fragment of the letter Roberta rips up. The bottom row shows Roberta filling every spot at her dinner table, reflecting how she does all the jobs of the house.

There are moments of familial warmth (Roberta lying with her little sister on a quilt their mom made), moments of true friendship. At the end of “Strange Magic” all the colors of Lisa’s LSD trip have dispersed, but what remains is the friend who made sure she got home safely.

“K.M. & R.P. & MCMLXXL (1971)” asks you to travel in circles with the characters, as Rhea looks for a happy ending while dressed as Hamlet’s Ophelia. In “Nana” the main character learns a girl she dislikes loves Karen Carpenter, too, and it’s that possessiveness we get about music, and who has the right to call themselves a fan. “Alvin” touches on white appropriation of black music, and Dean even touches on the political climate of 2001, and Islamaphobia after 9/11, with the final act of “Greenfriar’s.”

While each section is associated with a particular album, it’s not usually an album from the year the story takes place and it’s interesting to consider which artists live on, when songs become popular, and how much personal taste relies on discoveries that can happen at any time. Each of Dean’s stories is like a song, brief yet complete, and while I Am Young isn’t a graphic novel where you’re unaware of the stylistic choices being made, that doesn’t change how impressive they are.

For fans of short stories and the snapshots they provide into their characters’ lives, I Am Young goes on sale November 13th from Fantagraphics.

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