I got a chance, recently, to read through the first print collection of the web-comic Sarararara: All American Girl (by Olivia Hicks, with some pages contributed by Robbie. D. Kieran, Georgia Battle, David Robertson, and Will Battle), which is to be presented at the 2018 Thought Bubble Festival. You can find the original comics in https://sararararawebcomic.tumblr.com/
On one hand – being that I am neither a girl, nor romantic at heart, nor usually interested in comics that contain less than a dozen explosions per issue – I am not the target audience for Sarararara, a pastiche of 1950s American teen romance comics and 1970s British girl-comics done with the aesthetic of DIY alt-zine. On the other hand, I am exactly the right audience for Sarararara – because it’s a good comic, you see, and I quite like good comics. If you like good comics, like Watchmen or Prince of Cats or the issue of Giant Days when they cross over to the Night World, you will like this one too. That’s just logic.
The story, such as it is, is about a new girl coming to school and driving all the boys crazy. And then she drives most of the girls crazy in the same way. And then she drives some girls crazy in another way. Also, the new girl (whose name is in the title, and I’m trying not to write it too many times because it’s hard to remember how many times you have to do the “ra” part) is an alien (?) monster-thing who likes to trap boys in her cocoon, not so much to eat them but mostly because, apparently, this is what people do where she comes from. (“She’s from Wisconsin,” announces a grinning teacher.)
The joke is pretty obvious: Sarararara is strange to the reader, but all of the characters are acting like she’s a hot-bombshell. Doesn’t matter what she does, everybody is completely smitten, with the exception Francine (the closest thing this story has to heroine), who is mad that her boyfriend has googly-eyes for the new girl. It’s a decent gag, and one that could play for years as a newspaper strip or a feature in a British anthology. One could also imagine it playing up the darker undertones, especially with the all-American façade – for a moment there I could see it becoming something Peter Milligan might have written as the final page for 2000AD in the late 1980s, with shades of his short-lived strip The Summer of Love. While the strip does end up going into darker (thematically, at least) territory, it does so without changing the mood of the storytelling, which is quite a feat.
In fact, one of the joys of this short collection is the realization that that the creator knows we know all the obvious gags and kind of breezes through them – moving up the plot in rapid pace and letting the characters react to Sarararara. She is an engine of chaos, not just in the life of the characters but in the all-American society as well. This is where the Milligan mood is felt best, that willingness to deep dive into the façade of perfect society without forgetting the jokes – and they’re good jokes too!
Consider the scene in which two boys decide to take our attractive alien atrocity on a double date – the way the strip builds up their frustration, on several levels, and then sways with how society reacts to their double-date-with-one-girl. It’s a fine piece of comedic construction – from characters to society to illustration.
Still, the major appeal of the comics is the way Olivia Hicks draws, and more importantly presents, the strip: a rough pencil style, meant to evoke home-made zines, but showcased as if torn from a notebook, giving extra kick to the DIY vibe. It’s a comic that looks good not because it follows rules of draftsmanship but because it knows the feeling it wants to evoke and goes for it. In other words, it’s very fun to look at. The downside is that the roughness of the pencils sometimes gives way to utter chaos, like when the writing tries to do too much and art can’t quite keep up. Possibly the problem is the lack of coloring; it’s not that the book looks bad in black and white as much as some color would help establish the scenery and characters, considering the semi-chaotic mood of the strip. (Look at how good the cover above looks, how it doesn’t sacrifice the style that makes the book work.)
The ending of the book is quite a curious thing – making explicit the implicit themes of race and immigration that the book only played with at first. That’s quite delicate ground, which makes me rather curious to see what exactly Olivia Hicks is planning for the continuation of this story. Whatever she ends up doing, I want to know.