A review a day: <i>The Waiting Place</i>

Here's a nice chunk of comics for you! Who doesn't love chunks of comics?

The Waiting Place is Sean McKeever's decade-old independent series that has now been collected by IDW. It's almost 500 pages long and costs 30 dollars. Now that's a value! The first six issues are pencilled and laid out by Brendon and Brian Fraim, issues #7-12 are laid out by David Yurkovich, while issues #7-18 plus the epilogue are pencilled by Mike Norton.

If you've only read McKeever's work for the Big Two, this is a nice change of pace. I haven't read a lot of McKeever's work, but this reminds me of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, except without the superpowers. And this is a bit more mature, even though it deals with teenagers.

Jeffry Dietz, a senior in high school, moves to the podunk town of Northern Plains (population 972) from "the city," and he immediately finds it difficult to fit in, naturally. McKeever follows Jeffry, the other kids in high school, and other denizens of the town from the beginning of the school year through New Year's Eve, with an epilogue that catches up on some principals seven years later. While Jeffry is a convenient character to begin the story with, as he's a newcomer as much as we are, the book doesn't really have a main character, as many, many characters are part of McKeever's story, and he often focuses on them in different chapters. So we get a second main character in Scott Forbes, a slightly older guy who runs a video store with his parents and therefore still interacts often with the high schoolers; Lora Halstead, the edgy chick who screws whomever she pleases and rails against the hypocrisy of people calling her a "slut"; Jill Patterson, a cute 14-year-old who always tries to fit in but also dates the local bad boy; Kyle Donavan, said bad boy, who of course has a family he wants no one to know about; Cullen Cole, the black kid who moves in and stirs up the latent racism of several characters; Steven Randall, the most popular boy in school, who harbors a dark secret; and a host of others. McKeever is quite adept at creating unique characters and then turning them loose.

As Jeffry is our conduit into this world, quite a bit of the book is about Northern Plains and how terribly boring it is. Jeffry whines about it, Scott whines about it, Lora whines about it, and even some minor characters whine about it.

This might become obnoxious, but McKeever is pretty good at writing teenagers, and that's often what teenagers do - they whine. McKeever, however, makes sure that he doesn't overdo it, and the feelings of these teens feel very organic - yes, they whine, but they yearn for something different, too, and they never become petulant, because we understand their yearning for something, anything - which of course leads to typical teenaged destructive behavior: drinking, drugs, screwing around. What McKeever does is give these kids deep personalities so that when they do something stupid, we can see why they do it, instead of just thinking how dumb it is that they do it. And even though some of the behavior and characters are fairly stereotypical, McKeever still puts some nice twists on things. Scott, for instance, wants to move to Hollywood and be an actor. We've seen this kind of thing before, and if you really think Scott is going to move away from Northern Plains, I have a bridge to sell you. Scott appears in the very last panel in the book, and it's not in Hollywood. So we know he's not going anywhere, but McKeever does a nice job showing his frustration, his desire to leave and the reasons he doesn't. At one point, an old schoolmate of his shows up, starring in a movie of his own, and McKeever does a nice job contrasting the two of them. Scott is also dealing with his obsession with his high school girlfriend, with whom he broke up when he went to college. He lasted only a year in college, and when he returned to Northern Plains, she had moved on. He still sees her around, and the early part of the book that feature Scott show his pain and longing for her to return to him. Even later in the book, when he no longer has that option, his desire for female companionship is often palpably painful to read about. McKeever doesn't beat us over the head with the fact that he's hanging out with high school kids or that he has a sweet (yet creepy) moment with Jill at one point - sweet because it feels true, creepy because she's 14 and he's 22 (nothing happens, but the potential is still there). It's handled well, and leads to the epilogue, where the two meet again.

McKeever also does a nice job with the rhythms of high school life, as people get close, drift apart, and come back together again. Jeffry is a good example.

He arrives in the town with a girlfriend back in "the city," but we never see her even though he talks about her occasionally. He sees Jill early on and starts crushing on her, but soon realizes she's dating Kyle. He becomes close to Lora and even hooks up with her occasionally, but they never become a "couple." Finally, a girl whose parents own a cabin near town visits one weekend, and she and Jeffry have a special night together. McKeever tracks these relationships and although there are some tense moments between Jeffry and Lora, it's kind of nice that the kids realize that things have never gotten too serious. And then McKeever brings this back in the epilogue as well, and it's a powerful moment.

There are plenty of small moments that add up as we read, and a lot of it has to do with the art combining with McKeever's writing. McKeever doesn't overwrite, allowing his characters to experience uncomfortable silences (the moment between Scott and Jill is one of those, made more uncomfortable by the age difference) and trusting the artists to make the moments work. The art is fairly interesting, because while Norton is a better illustrator than the Fraims (and makes Northern Plains a more real world than the Fraims do), the Fraims seem to do a better job with the kind of people who would live in the town.

The issues that the Fraims drew came out in 1997, and they do a great job showing how unfashionable the kids are, as they look ten years out of date. The books takes place in the present, but the kids have uncool haircuts (even the "cool" ones) and wear uncool clothes. It's a very nice touch, and I really hope it's deliberate. It's such a nifty way to show that these kids, even the ones who listen to Nine Inch Nails, are stuck in a place where they can't help but be behind the times. Both art teams (and Yurkovich's layouts don't look that much different from when Norton takes over the art chores completely) do a wonderful job with making the characters real and showing us the emotions playing across their faces that many of them simply cannot admit to. We get very few conversations where the people say what they mean - we do get them, but they're rare - and so the way they look as they don't say things is crucial. In issue #10, "I Care," for instance, the look on Lora's face when someone finally tells her what she wants to hear is beautiful, as is the way she doesn't get to see who said it.

The epilogue, which presumably was written for this collection, shows how much Norton has grown as an artist, as it's visually stunning and again shows that even though these people are older, they still can't say what they mean.

McKeever does some interesting things with the characters, too. Toward the end, Scott explains that life can't be measured into chapters, an ironic comment given the format of this book, and McKeever ends the original comic with a clever moment to show this. The idea that life goes on beyond the confines of the book is a reason why some characters' arcs are never completed. We don't find out what happens to Steven Randall, for instance. A seemingly crucial pregnancy is ignored (unless the epilogue clears some of it up - it's unclear). We don't learn the fates of all the principals - not that we really need to, as we can guess. McKeever doesn't need to wrap everything up, because that's not the way life is, is it?

The Waiting Place is a very good book, and while it's not truly great (some things are just a bit too stereotypical), it's close. McKeever writes teens and young people very well, doesn't cut corners to reach emotional conclusions, shows many sides to the teen experience, and collaborates with very good artists to bring Northern Plains to life. There's so much to like in this book that its few weaknesses are easy to overlook. If you've only ever read McKeever's superhero work, I encourage you to check this out to see what he can do with "real" people.

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