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Posted on Sat, Mar 20, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Unlovable's Tammy Pierce leads a bittersweet life

By Julia Eussen


Page from "Unlovable" by Esther Pearl Watson, courtesy of Fantagraphics Books.

Unlovable, by Esther Pearl Watson, is a graphic novel based on a teenager's journal found by the author in a gas station. From late August 1988 - December 1988, all of the fun and chaos of being a sophomore is lovingly portrayed by the heroine, Tammy Pierce. What does this mean for me? As someone who was 15 in 1985, the angst of dances, boys, makeup and big hair are portrayed with painful accuracy.

Tammy, like so many young girls, is concerned with her looks. The opening pages show us the following: a picture of home-permed hair with a large flat spot in the back where she couldn't reach with her curling iron; a note from Tammy indicating that this school year will be so much better because she now knows how to keep her shoulder pads in place and that, in the beauty color scheme, she is a "summer." She can successfully wear colors such as "mango puree" and "foamy orange."

What else goes on in Tammy's life? Although she's a high school student, school is merely the backdrop for her drama. She spends her time in detention wondering if her friend Kimberly left her any chili cheese fries to eat at Sonic. She spends a great deal of time thinking boys - boyfriends that she forgot about, boys that are seniors and boys that are gross. Fun includes outings to the mall with her kleptomaniac friend, riding in the Pizza Trails car, and occasional bouts of risky behavior, such as stealing a water hose.

These excursions are amusing and not that unusual. The real pleasure comes from the unexpected pages of her diary. Poems suddenly appear that made this reader smile. An early poem is "Erick."

Your head is a brick.
You like hot chicks and sex flicks.
Your denim jacket collection you need to nix.
(sorry, it's true!)

Sometimes events conveyed are quite sentimental, and at other times, the complete opposite. For example, several pages have mushrooms in assorted sizes on them. It took me nearly 2/3 of the book to realize that they were toadstools representing her farts. (She not only counts them, but also gauges their aromatic strength.)

In one excursion she climbs out of her bedroom window and looks into her own house. This particular scene is so contrary to much of what occurs in the remainder of the book. Not because of what happens, or doesn't happen, but because she is so clearly still a young girl - a child - hoping for adventure in a rather naïve fashion.

I indicated that Tammy's life is bittersweet. This isn't because of one particular event, but because being teenager is bittersweet. She does not want to be a third wheel when with Kimberly and Kim's boyfriend; she does want to go to a dance; and she does want adventure, whatever that may mean. Instead she feels awkward and is unsure of her friend's behavior, and spends parties passed out in a car missing the excitement. Her life is bittersweet because whatever she thinks should happen, somehow that is not what occurs.

On a final note, I want to say that I've not read, much less written about, many graphic novels. It is hard to convey how much of the joy of Unlovable comes not only from the wandering plotline (if there is any in this book) but also from the accompanying visuals. Tammy's attentions, interests and emotions are all scattered. The author's style of drawing lends to the feeling of chaos and scatteredness; the reader senses it in the erratic lines and messy fonts of various sizes. An erratic view of an erratic time of life.

Unlovable Volume Two was released earlier this month. I can't wait to see how the rest of her sophomore year turned out.

Julia Eussen received her B.A. in English from Kansas State University. She is currently a graduate student in Eastern Michigan University's Professional Writing Program. She is also an active member of the Ann Arbor Classics Book Group. She can be reached at jeussen at emich dot com.