Left: Cover artwork of Svetlana Chmakova’s “Awkward” (Courtesy of Yen Press/Hatchette Press)
By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor
Although it takes place in a middle school, “Awkward”, the newest graphic novel from author Svetlana Chmakova, is a universal story of acceptance, friendship, and waving one’s nerd flag. Penelope ‘Peppi’ Torres, has transferred to a new school and is aware of the unspoken rules of passing through life without causing a scene. However, on the first day, Peppi’s hallway collision with Jaime Thompson sends her carefully laid plans askew, especially when the boy she pushes away in a panic ends up being her science tutor. Peppi is also a member of the art club while Jaime is a member of the science club, two clubs currently in the middle of a juvenile rivalry that threatens to shut them down.
Chmavoka’s “Awkward” is an effortless read as everything flows perfectly from scene to scene. There are a lot of story arcs in 240 pages, from the art club’s race to meet the newspaper’s deadline to the all-out campus battle between the artists and the science nerds, but it never feels like it is crammed. Chmavoka’s familiarity with both American and Japanese style comic is evident in not only her artistic style but also her use of paneling and page effects to convey tone and emotion in a scene.
Manga fans will be amused by how Chmavoka uses the standard manga tropes in her story and subverts them at every chance. Since “Awkward” is published by Yen Press, a mainly manga publisher, Chmavoka is fully aware that her main audience reads Japanese comics and openly plays to their preferences while still maintaining her own aesthetic. The character designs are clearly products of someone who grew up on manga but they would never be confused for manga.
The real draw of “Awkward” is its characters, from the dynamic members of the art club, the energetic editors of the newspaper, and the adventurous nerds of the science club. At the center is Peppi and Jaime, whose hallway crash makes the foundation for an unusual but interesting friendship. Peppi is a girl who wants to see what life has to offer, while Jaime prefers being wrapped up in his own interests. It is through their natural interactions (and a bit of forced circumstance) that Peppi and Jaime start to see each other’s true selves, and they realize that the only way to survive school is to be authentic, even if people think their authentic way is weird.
The “Awkward” cast is also wonderfully, organically diverse: Peppi is non-white, Jaime can be read as non-white, there are a lot of girls in the science team, the awesome science teacher who takes no nonsense is black, one of the newspaper editors is a Muslim girl with a headscarf, and there are many characters of color in both clubs. In a time when we talk about representation in media, “Awkward” takes the gold star. I can only imagine how someone in middle school who is used to the ‘all white everything’ media commonly found in books will take to a fictional school in which the student body is anything but all white.
It stands to reason that some of the issues facing Peppi still plague college students: the need to feel accepted; floundering in a new surrounding; having to find a place among people who share interests. The kids of “Awkward” remind us that, no matter what age we are, we should not have to hide our true selves to be welcome. “Awkward” is a hilarious and thoughtful sorta-coming-of-age graphic novel I would recommend to anyone entering into a new school at any stage.