Review time! with <i>Grade 5</i> #2

Self-published comics ahoy!

Jason Crayton, the writer and artist of Grade 5, a comic book about kids in ... well, fifth grade, recently sent me a link to his second issue. And lo, I shall review it!

Crayton writes that he wants to create an all-ages comic, of which there are a dearth these days. With Grade 5, he has. It's a comic that anyone can enjoy, because it evokes the weirdness and tension of grade school but also has a tiny bit of an edge to it. But, of course, the question is: Is it any good?

Well, it's not bad. It's very rough, both in story and art, but Crayton has a good idea and he "gets" the mindset of fifth graders (even if he doesn't quite have the language down). The art is very cartoony, with Crayton giving his characters large, expressive eyes and exaggerated faces. He does an interesting job with the extremes of fifth grade - everything is heightened and intense, much like elementary school itself. The biggest problem with Crayton's art is that he has a lot of characters in the book, and too often the adults don't look much different than the kids, so it's occasionally hard to tell everyone apart. The main characters are strongly defined, but the ancillary characters aren't as much. While Crayton draws the characters in a fairly traditional (yet cartoony) fashion, he does change up the page layouts a little, scattering panels across the page to increase the kinetic nature of some scenes, giving his characters the entire page to talk without panel borders whatsoever in some cases, and having some fun with the structure of the comic. While Crayton's rough pencil work could use some improvement, he certainly knows how to tell a story, working well within the framework of a traditional comic but knowing when to break out of it as well.

The story tells us of five fifth grade buddies (based on Crayton and his friends), who have decided to make their school year the best one ever, going so far as to compile a "bucket list" of things they want to achieve before moving on to middle school (in my elementary school, sixth grade was the highest grade, but I can understand the impulse even if my friends and I didn't actually have a plan). This issue deals with their plan to win the annual fourth grade-vs.-fifth grade dodgeball contest in record time, but it goes a bit sideways when one of the 4th-grade girls launches at Jason (the main character) and bites him. Before Jason can become the butt of jokes, his friends spread a rumor about Iggy (the girl) so that she's the one who's humiliated. However, like a good after-school special, everyone learns something in the end! I shouldn't write that, because Crayton doesn't make this as sappy as an after-school special - this is just about kids realizing they have things in common (and if you don't know why Iggy might bite Jason, you've never been a child) and working it out without worrying about peer pressure. Crayton does a nice job showing that Jason and Iggy's friends, Dave and Lexi, aren't really evil, they just don't know how to handle the possible humiliation of their friends (and, by extension, themselves). But, as Crayton points out, kids can often work things out for themselves, and he presents it in an organic, non-sappy way.

The biggest problem with the writing is that the kids don't necessarily sound like fifth- and fourth-graders. Crayton makes them far wittier than I think they should be, and they make several cultural references that I don't think they would make. At least Crayton keeps them mostly current - there's a reference to Dodgeball the movie and to Kanye West at the VMAs, but one kid does reference the Jackson Five, which I doubt would happen - but it's not that the references are from recent times, it's just that I can't imagine 10- and 11-year-olds making them. It's been a while since I've spoken to kids of this age, so maybe it's truer than I think, but it feels like Crayton is making them older than they actually are. When he has them make dumber jokes - they wonder if their teacher got dressed in the dark - it feels "righter," because kids like silly and somewhat cruel things and aren't as clever as they think they are (actually, that's true for most people, when you think about it). They would think asking the teacher if she got dressed in the dark the absolute height of comedy, but 11-year-olds probably wouldn't be so clever to ask the teacher if Barry Manilow knows she raids his wardrobe (so to speak). It's not a huge problem (even though I just devoted a paragraph to it), but it does take me out of the story a bit, because it's hard to get a sense that these are real fifth-graders a lot of the time. And Iggy might be as smart as she seems, but her conversation with Jason about what she's thinking (I don't want to spoil it) sounds like two adults talking - it would have been more interesting if she was far smarter than he was and had to "dumb it down" for him, because I very much doubt he would understand everything she's saying to him on a first pass. Maybe he would. It's tough to say.

Grade 5 has a lot of room for improvement, but it's a charming comic that offers something we don't often see - an attempt to show elementary school as it really is, warts and all. The kids might be precocious, and that's one reason I'm not completely enthralled by the book, but Crayton makes a good effort to get into their heads and allow them to act like 11-year-olds, not like people want kids to act. They're immature but trying to do better. They're on the cusp of puberty and really unsure how to act about that. I hope Crayton continues working on this and I hope he continues to improve. I think it has potential to be a very fun comic.

I don't have any art samples because Crayton sent it to me as a .pdf file. You can check out his blog (the link is above) for an idea of how he draws, and you can buy the book at IndyPlanet and Lulu. Check it out! And thanks to Crayton for letting me take a look at his labor of love.

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