Emanata: “Morning Glories,” Types and Archetypes

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Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma’s series Morning Glories is one of the very few American comic books in its category right now: an ongoing, creator-owned series, in the conventional color-pamplet format, with sizeable buzz and sales figures, that doesn’t quite belong to any established comics genre. It’s about a group of six promising 16-year-olds who’ve been drafted into an exclusive prep school where nothing is quite as it seems, and the faculty are up to some very bad things. There seems to be a touch of supernatural horror stuff going on; there’s a mystery/thriller element, too, a foreboding flashback to 1490 in one issue, and what appears to be an even more foreboding flash-forward in another. Mostly, though, Morning Glories has the sort of premise you might associate with an ambitious TV show rather than a current comic book. (There’s more than a bit of Lost in its DNA.)

The first collection of the series came out this week, evidently subtitled For a Better Future, although that phrase somehow only appears on its back cover in tiny type. (It’s a decent bargain, too: the first six issues of the series, some of them extra-long, for ten bucks.) It’s a lot of fun. Spencer’s still developing his voice as a comics writer, but he’s already a clever plotter with a wicked sense of humor (his Jimmy Olsen serial and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents work have also marked him as worth watching), and Eisma’s artwork is clean and crisp, if maybe a little too reliant on canted angles to make his staging more dramatic. It’s a pageturner, too: I found myself wanting to see what happens in the next issue rather than waiting for the next collection, which was probably the point of the bargain-priced trade.

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Still, there are a few things about For a Better Future that feel underdeveloped or unsatisfying. The six protagonists, just by the way the story is set up, are very similar in some ways–they’re all bright young people (the same age, in fact), wearing matching preppy clothes. But the things that set them apart from each other seem a little forced. They’re all types: one’s a vamp, one’s perpetually cynical and angry, one’s a superwealthy schemer (like a slightly older version of Stewie from Family Guy, and scarcely more subtle). The kid with no particularly prominent personality trait is fairly obviously positioned as a point of identification for readers–he’s even established as a comic book collector. There’s a joke about one of the kids being “the perky one” and another being “the emo one.” All six of them have distinctive hair colors and styles without which they’d sometimes be difficult to tell apart. Likewise, the evil faculty are shorthand caricatures: of course the tightly wound, sadistic teacher has wire-rimmed glasses and her hair pulled back into a bun. (That doesn’t make her any less fun to watch, of course.)

Spencer is writing in very broad strokes, in other words, and that’s fine: at least in this first book, we’re not seeing precisely realized characters evolving, we’re seeing game pieces doing intriguing things. Even after reading these six issues end-to-end, though, it’s not clear what exactly Morning Glories is about–not what the neatly constructed puzzles of its plot may eventually reveal, but if it has any particular resonance outside itself. The book has uncanny things happening in it, but it’s not quite uncanny itself; it has familiar elements and characters, but they don’t seem to fit together into a larger archetype. It entertains without echoing.

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That comes to mind partly because I read For a Better Future alongside another graphic novel about a young person plunged into a hostile environment: the excellent new volume of Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder series, Voice. I’m hesitant to say too much about Voice (in part because, full disclosure, I’ve written the introduction to a forthcoming collection of four early Finder books), but it echoes like crazy.

For all its headspinning sci-fi invention, Voice is grounded in a very reliable set of storytelling conventions: a few hours after I finished it, I realized that it’s a version of the hero’s-journey narrative that’s been dragged into a dark alley, roughed up and flipped inside-out. There’s a meeting with the goddess, a boon, an atonement with the father, a woman-as-temptress incident, a supernatural mentor, and so on–and this book’s version of every single one of those hoary old Joseph Campbell archetypes is inverted, false, conspicuous by its absence, or simply not the one it appears to be. Voice is a story on its own, a star within the constellation of McNeil’s series. But part of the reason it keeps on being a pleasure after it’s over is that it’s also a commentary on something broader: the difference between men’s and women’s coming-of-age stories, and the idea that finding one’s mature self might not happen the way one imagines.