It is not hyperbole to say cynicism has become a problem. It would also not be over dramatic to say the problem has ballooned into great proportions with each passing generation. While there are plenty of self-help books and TV shows that try to make us feel better, not much seems to be working. Perhaps, this is why Morning Glories was both a critical and sales success.
Spencer and artist Joe Eisma have created a teen drama that doesn’t feel cliched or embarrassing. Instead, it brilliantly shows the errors and tragedies of growing into adulthood and the cynicism that can act as a deterrent to most growing up.
Rehashing teen dramas is rarely the route to great art. Most anyone with a TV or the Internet know the lists: The Hills, The O.C., Gossip Girl, etc. There is seemingly no end to them.
For some, a series like Morning Glories can seem like teen drama lite. A boarding school drama that follows the adventures of six students trying to escape. The catch: the faculty are trying to murder the students in order to bring about some “better future” as the posters in Morning Glories Academy say. But this is not Spencer inventing a tired McGuffin. This is Nick Spencer at his most daring, doing what others couldn’t: making teenagers and their stories interesting while pushing forth a bit of hope.
While the struggles of Spencer’s characters can seem fatal and daunting, there is a bit of hope in the futility they face. They are characters trying to avoid the certain: they will all grow up and they will all die. Not to be morbid. This is what the series is about in many ways: how best to grow up without turning into the adults they fight against.
While his characters do fit some archetypes: the brain, the jock, the pretty girl, and so on, it is Spencer’s execution that pays off these characters. Where any other writer would rely on archetypes to carry their story, Spencer instead interrogates his characters. By interrogate, I mean any scene where the characters are forced to face their mortality (a common occurrence at Morning Glories Academy.) What Spencer seems to be unearthing is a genuine core to his characters, one that isn’t complicit in the fake and fraudulence of their teenage years.
Much of this interrogating in Morning Glories feels urgent, as if the reader is in danger along with teenage cast of characters. Where a lazy writer may rely on this feeling alone, Spencer is not satisfied. He is a writer driven to interrogate his characters. To create the most genuine of reactions. Spencer does so by placing his characters in violent confrontations that should only equal death.
The first time the characters all attempt to rescue their friend Jade from the infirmary, they fail spectacularly — but also show that they can rely on each other… well, minus Ike, of course. But isn’t Ike just displaying the characteristics of any American teen: a cynical attitude towards the world?
But American teenage dramas are known for many characteristics that have become cliches: the rich high class teenagers whose lives resemble what we see on TMZ or other paparazzi sites. The fake glitz and glamor that wash away quick. The paradoxical, endless fights to stave off the “drama” that each teen fights to perpetuate and stave off simultaneously.
This mixture of Hollywood and teenagers is nothing new though. It has been retread many times before. But Spencer takes his story down a unique path. One that doesn’t present teens as overly sharp or predictably dull. Instead, he has crafted fleshed out characters that react in more teenage ways to an ever shifting, and nefarious world. What is this warped and confused identity crisis we are putting on our teens?
We all know the coming-of-age tale. How a boy or girl, through some tragedy or adventure, grows into an adult. But the growth can typically feel so forced as to make the trappings seem like fashion and not story. A story meant to be stared at but never unwrapped.
What feels fresh and young in Spencer’s book is not his eye for cynicism but his modest hope. That’s a weird word to be used in the growing tide of cynicism that threatens to engulf us all, not just teens.
While cynicism is nothing new to teenagers, the fact that increasingly younger people are exhibiting it is alarming. In the past, it wasn’t until college that cynicism tended widely to occur. Where once college introduced cynicism, now it simply is seen as reinforcing it.
This is not to paint colleges in a bad light. After all, these institutions are simply revealing the truths behind many of the misconceptions we were taught during our careers in public education.
The front cover to Morning Glories #1 displays this attitude by the straightforward, almost accusatory glances of all the main characters. Even Zoe — who is characterized as, perhaps, the most self-absorbed — is staring at the reader through her pocket mirror. Casey is holding the apple out to the reader. The apple that in the Judeo-Christian mythology means knowledge and responsibility.
There is an implied cynicism here. As if the group is always looking out for the Establishment to come after them, to lock them away in adulthood, where they will toil forever. Their glances all tell the reader: if you are one of them, we are on to you. The group does this without any words or actions whatsoever.
Is this cynicism founded? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it is cynical nonetheless. It assumes that anyone out there could be against them — so just assume so from the start, and you will be prepared.
There is a confinement in their cynicism, as if they can only grow and move within certain boundaries. Spencer does an admirable job of having his characters act and react in believably human ways. Some would rise to the challenge and overcome their anxiety and cynicism, while others may succumb to their most base and craven ways.
Spencer and Eisma are placed in panels by the series in such a way that highlights the characters dilemma and attitudes. Throughout the series, paneling has been a major component of the overall atmosphere of the series. Much in the way Hitchcock used lighting to enhance mood, so to does Eisma and Spencer create a mood of conspiracy and confinement with their pages and panels. Even the covers, like issue #1, perfectly convey these moods.
In the first issue alone, the choice of layout and paneling helps to introduce and reinforce the stereotype of each person. For instance, when Ike is introduced, it is amid some long rectangular panels in a scene reminiscent of The Royal Tennenbaums. Spencer and Eisma employ these long, stretched out shots with plenty of space in between the players. Shots like this imply distance between characters but can also imply history as well as confinement.
For this page, Ike is on the far right end and his mother is on the far left. Dividing them is the butler. He stands awkward having to be something of a net to their volleys back and forth.
Spencer is showing that, while Ike seems all powerful here, he is just as limited as any other character. All three characters in this scene are stuck. They can’t move due to Ike and what a bastard he is.
Even his mother who wants to be freed from the mystery of her husband’s (Ike’s father’s) death. Ike will not even reveal this, thus keeping the other characters bound. It is perhaps one of the most nihilistic relationships played out so succinctly on the page.
This human bondage of Ike’s further spurs his cynicism towards the world. While I am sure a change is coming in the series, his overall character is that of a cynical bastard who doesn’t care to be more. He does not aspire to be a good person like Hunter does. But this too, perhaps, reinforces the idea of roles and how stuck these characters might truly be.
Zoe is introduced in smaller panels. The panels are all tightly cropped showing her breaking up with a new guy per panel. Each panels shrinking of the scene implies intimacy, which helps build the overall picture that Zoe is an inveterate liar and morals and ethics don’t last long with her.
One common thread among these characters is they all, in some form, are lying to themselves. They are fighting against the truth of who they really are and who they may become.
The fight for independence is a rough one, growing up. It is is never a bloodless war. But the cynicism being washed over us isn’t one we necessarily have to accept. While the conditions of our lives can be terrible, Spencer is showing the reader that acceptance of it can lead to change.
This is, perhaps, why Casey is offering the reader the apple on the cover of issue #1. She is the only character thus far to have changed / adapted to the academy, in order to not just survive but possibly succeed in overthrowing the establishment.
What is it that Casey exhibits that allows her to be such a possible threat? Her lack of cynicism. The biggest misconception the academy has of Casey is that she is just as cynical as her classmates. Instead, the fact that Casey is suspicious but not cynical that helps protect not just her but her fellow classmates.
This is clearly on display in Morning Glories #10, when the guards rush in cause of Jade screaming. As the guards threaten to come take Jade if she screams again, Casey gambles that her suspicions are correct: they cant take any of the girls cause the headmaster will not allow it.
Spencer is showing via Casey that being suspicions, rather than cynical, can help free the characters and the reader. As reinforced in the scene with Ike and his mother in issue #1, cynicism towards authority figures is equal to being bound to them. But if one is simply suspicious of authority, then one is not bound up in the same way.
Spencer is creating characters not defined by the situations they find themselves in but how they handle these situations. While this may seem like trite word play, it is more of a philosophy exhibited through his works. Morning Glories isn’t just another situational drama — it’s a work that relies on storytelling and character development as an answer to cynicism.