Trouble with Comics

Troop 142

Writer/Artist: Mike Dawson

Publisher: Secret Acres $20 USD

This is a graphic novel about a bunch of kids at a summer camp sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America. It could be straight-up comedy, it could be an earnest coming of age story, and it could be a critique of the BSA philosophies. And it turns out it’s all of these things. I’ve enjoyed Dawson’s work since his co-authored indie series, Gabagool, which also dealt with adolescent angst, humiliation and competitiveness. It’s more accurate to say that’s the only other work of Dawson’s I’ve read, though I really like it and want to catch up on what I missed. That said, yes, there are some problems with this overall enjoyable book.

First, though, let’s be clear that Dawson has a really appealing line. There are over half a dozen important characters in the book, and he’s able to make them distinctive without resorting to caricature. The settings are drawn fairly realistically and he gets all the details right, but everything’s reduced to its essentials. Eyes are dots, eyebrows are thin, singular lines, hair is usually an outline with a few lines rather than a lot of lines. The camp setting serves him well because he can use black for nighttime backgrounds, and simply rendered bushes and trees for daytime. Which isn’t to say he’s cheating; he’s just an efficient storyteller. When he needs to draw a rainstorm, it looks like a rainstorm. Woodgrain looks like woodgrain. The details are there, but used sparingly.

There are a number of minor stories here, or let’s call them incidents. Dawson’s funny. There are some good setups and payoffs here involving typical camp stuff, drug stuff, horny teen stuff. Better yet, he really remembers and understands adolescence. At any given moment, you might be called upon to compete with someone, maybe a footrace, feat of strength, or putdown contest. You can want to kill your best friend for not having your back when another kid makes you feel like shit. Your parents are always an embarrassment, and if they’re not, you have deeper problems. All the kids in this story are trying to navigate their week at camp to make it the best as possible, with strategies to either do their best, stay under the radar, or look for distractions in drugs, porn, pranks or the few females present. 

Into this mix, Dawson also explores some adult characters, mainly a hardass veteran camp counselor who’s very by-the-book, and the nebbishy, liberal new counselor who’s mainly there to bond with his sons, and is hypersensitive to unfairness or faulty logic. You feel like he’s experiencing camp, or at least his adolescence, all over again by being here, which just makes him even more awkward as a short-term leader of men. 

Most of this is played for laughs, but the anger and betrayal is real, too. Whether it’s at camp, a couple’s vacation, or work retreat, who hasn’t had that early screw-up that is all the worse because you’re stuck with these people who are pissed off at or freaked out by you for several more days, and you have to try to redeem yourself? 

Dawson doesn’t have one main narrative, nor do the stories build to one big climax. It’s messy and inconclusive, like life, and I appreciate that, though of course some people look for their fiction to be tidier. There might be a character or two too many. And there are some difficulties discerning Dawson’s point of view, particularly during a last night campfire speech from the head of the troop about the creeping menace of homosexuality. That is, it’s pretty clear that Dawson thinks this is an outdated, negative view the Boy Scouts of America hold, but there’s no further discussion of it, no repercussions. There’s a lot of homophobic, and homoerotic, words and incidents in the book, because it’s set in an indeterminate era (it could be the ’90s, it could be today), and for some youths, calling other kids “queer” and “fags” and making gay jokes or performing some homoerotic hazing is all part of adolescence and figuring out one’s sexuality and how one wants to treat people. 

But whereas that aspect of the book was disappointing, Dawson brings some real depth to his characters. The “good” kids are guilty of some heinous shit, while our liberal adult stand-in dad character totally loses it and crosses the disciplinary line, while the hardass dad has more going on than that. He’s just trying to relate to his son and the other kids in his own way, and he fails in a different way than the liberal guy fails, but they both fail and both succeed to some extent, because at least they’re there with their kids, experiencing something with them. It’s hard to come up with good jokes while at the same time exploring various shades of humanity, exploring pain and fear and shame in a meaningful way, but Dawson does a pretty terrific job here.

—Christopher Allen