A review a day: <I>A Friendly Game</i>

Oh, those sociopathic children. Who doesn't love them?

SLG brings us the latest in these reviews, a graphic novel called A Friendly Game. The "original concept" comes from Joe Pimienta, who also draws the book. Lindsay Hornsby writes, inks, and letters it, Lauren Affe tones it, and James Hornsby (Lindsay's husband) is the "special guest letterer." I have no idea what that means. It's 14.95 for 187 pages, so there's your deal.

A Friendly Game is the first comic by this creative team, and it shows. It's not a bad book, but it never quite becomes something you desperately need to read, either. I'll 'splain as we go along. We begin with two young friends (I'm going to guess that they're just hitting puberty, so 11-13 years old), Kevin and Todd. They're hanging out in Kevin's room, and he shows Todd a dead mouse caught in the trap in his room.

He suggests cutting it open. Todd says sure. That's in August. In November, they find a live mouse in the trap, and they take it out back and chuck rocks at it. Then we move into the winter, and they've moved up to other animals. They've made up a game, gaining points for the animals they kill. Todd is trying to lure a puppy into throwing range, but Kevin decides that he would rather keep it. Two friends of Todd show up as they're arguing, and Todd and Kevin fight over the puppy (which is in a bag, so the two others don't see it). Todd bonks Kevin on the head with a rock and leaves him and the bag there (Kevin's not dead). He and his two friends go to Todd's house, where Todd tells them, rather obliquely, about the game he's playing with Kevin. Down in his basement, they realize he's been killing animals in somewhat gruesome fashion. They try to stop him, and, well, you can probably guess what happens. Kevin comes to, finds out that Todd has killed two kids, and wants to go to the cops. Todd tells him that if he does, Todd will say Kevin came up with the game (which is true) and that Kevin is the killer (so not true!). So Kevin goes along with it. Todd, of course, still thinks it's a game and wants Kevin to participate as well.

The violence escalates, as Todd's father discovers what he's doing in the basement, and that's not a good thing for him to discover. So now Kevin "owes" Todd, and Kevin's mother is naturally the next target (Kevin's mom is single, and it appears Todd's dad is as well). This leads to a big confrontation between the two boys, as Kevin struggles to save his mom's life. I won't tell the ending, but if you can easily guess where it's going.

Hornsby and Pimienta don't try to fool us, which is nice. There's no boogeyman ready to leap out of a closet or some supernatural demon stalking around. This is simply a story of violence and what it does to people and how seductive it is. That's to the creators' credit, but because of their commitment to simply telling the story, they miss opportunities to delve a little deeper.

This is where the book falls short. It may not be a good idea to try to explain the psychosis behind Todd's behavior, but Hornsby is so vague about the kids' motivations that this feels too shallow for a book about adolescent violence. The absolute best parts of the book are when there is no violence, actually. After Kevin discovers that Todd has killed the two boys, he talks to his mother about responsibility. His mother is in a wheelchair, the result of a car accident years ago (that, it's implied, ruined her marriage). She's not bitter about it (not anymore), but she does tell Kevin that when it first happened, she believed it was her fault because she wanted to spend more time with her husband instead of raising him. It's such a nice scene, and then Todd comes over and eats dinner with them, and Hornsby and Pimienta do a very nice job ratcheting up the tension around the table, because Kevin's mom inadvertently mentions that Kevin was asking questions about right and wrong. We don't know how Todd will react to that, and it's a disturbing and frightening scene because of it. The book is really about Kevin growing up and accepting responsibility for his actions, and Todd refusing to do so. When the creators write about that, the book has a quiet power. The violence overwhelms it a bit, and because we have no idea what's going on in Todd's head, it's a bit weaker. We can speculate all we want about what drives Todd to commit these heinous acts, but he's such a blank slate that he can't really be a great villain. Kevin's story is the primary one, true, but Todd is such a big part of his story, and it would have been nice if we'd at least known a bit more about him.

Pimienta has a solid, clean style, and the way he designs Kevin and Todd is quite nice. Both kids are marked as outsiders by their appearances - Kevin is a bit chunky, while Todd has longish hair. At the very beginning of the book, they're playing a non-actionable version of Risk, and Kevin's bed sheets are covered with dinosaur silhouettes.

These nice subtle clues let us know that perhaps Kevin and Todd aren't terribly popular, leading them into introverted and violent games (as opposed to extroverted and violent games like football). We never get any confirmation of this, but Pimienta does a nice job hinting around at reasons for their "game," which helps a bit as it's so lacking in the script. Pimienta and Affe do a very nice job as the book gets darker and darker, drawing Todd as more and more demented and making the shadows bigger and bigger until they threaten to swallow everyone. The final confrontation between the two boys is nicely done, as they engage in a primal struggle for dominance and both their souls have left their eyes. Of course, the question will be if Kevin manages to regain his. Which way will they go?!?!?

I don't love A Friendly Game because of its familiarity and the fact that Hornsby and Pimienta don't seem to go beyond the concept of "a kid starts killing people as part of a game." We've seen that before, and what's interesting is how the creators make it different. The fact that the book is about Kevin growing up makes it more interesting, but because the violence is such a big part of the story, it tends to overwhelm the more fascinating themes. It's definitely not a failure, but it's frustrating that I can see a lot more to this story than what's there. I hope the creative team does more work, because they can only get better.

Tomorrow: James Turner triumphs over Diamond Distributors!!!!!

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