The publishing company, First Second, is always a good source for a variety of graphic novels. Sometimes I get a downer, sometimes I get a good read. Other times I get something that seems generic but then takes a bizarre turn in the third act and becomes a great deal more compelling. Brain Camp is a 2010 release from First Second, and a decent sized crew worked on it. Brain Camp was written by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan. The illustrations were done by Faith Erin Hicks, one of the best workers in the sequential art craft. The color was completed by Hilary Sycamore.
Jenna Chun and Lucas Meyer are both outcasts among their own families. Jenna is a pop-culture geek in a family full of over-achieving nerds. Lucas is an at-risk-of-dropping-out kid who lives with his shitty mom. After arguments with their families, a tall man with high cheek bones visits the two kids’ parents in the middle of the night. The tall man is there to sell the parents on Camp Fielding, an educational summer camp, that the parents agree to send Jenna and Lucas to. After being sent to Camp Fielding, both of the kids struggle to like most of their fellow campers, who are quick to bully and push around our dual protagonists. Various circumstances cause the two to go without eating meals at the camp for a few days, and they notice that campers who have been eating the ice cream have started to perform well at the educational activities at Camp Fielding. In exchange, these kids’ personalities have been replaced by cold, jaundiced stares. Some of these same campers have disappeared too. On a covert backwoods trip to the nearest convenience store, our leads discover part of the truth once they come across a decrepit building. The missing students have been infected by a disease that causes them to sprout beaks on their foreheads and vomit feathers.
Faith Erin Hicks worked on the visual elements of the novel, save for the coloring job, and she designed and inked her characters the way she has done in her commercial work for a number of years. The human characters have simple designs with distinct facial features to set them apart. Specifically, the noodle-y bodies and clothes are simple, but the faces have some extra ink markings on them to suggest expressions. They aren’t meant to be literal interpretations of facial features (such as a skin wrinkle, most of the characters are too young to have that many), but rather a suggestion about how loose or taut that area of the face is.
What’s new, at least in my experience, is the addition of creature designs as well. Without giving too much away, there are two different kinds of creature in the book, and one of the kinds looks a lot creepier than the other due to how it directly affects the kids at Camp Fielding. The coloring job by Hilary Sycamore is superb and I honestly can’t wait until I get a hang of how to color my own projects with the same style that is often utilized in the young adult graphic novels I read. The fact that coloring is too often only credited on the inside of the book and never on the cover is a damn shame. The only visual element that feels out of place in a commercially available graphic novel is the occasional appearance of out-of-the-box computer fonts on things that could have been done in digital ink. It’s odd to otherwise see a lot of what closely resembles hand-drawn text in speech bubbles next to plain ol’ Myriad on a book’s spine or Times New Roman on the camp director’s office door plaque. That’s the only nit-pick I have because everything else works; most people aren’t even going to think about it.
Themes (Mild Spoilers)
The main social critique of Brain Camp points its finger at high-strung parents who want to push their children to be high-achievers, even if it costs their children any and all sense of individuality. I grew up with relatively lax parents who pushed me to be active in both athletic and intellectual pursuits, but they also respected my wishes to withdraw from anything that I tried and didn’t like. The kids in Brain Camp have far more strict parents who have no such respect, and the parents’ commitment to try to make their children apply themselves becomes outright psychopathic. Since this is a young adult novel, the sympathy is given to the children, although I would image that older readers would see larger menaces at work. The diminishing work force around the world, combined with a complete lack of respect for artists’ monetary compensation, has caused a hyper-competitive job market to emerge, and real-life parents are more than likely just looking out for their kids’ best interest. I’m of the opinion that re-thinking labor and payment would solve these problems, but there’s no need for that to be the subject of a young adult novel. Instead, the kids find themselves taking an interest in intellectual pursuits once a genuine interest has been stoked by the conflicts of the novel. The two leads work together to resolve the conflict, even after they have started “drinking the Kool-Aid”, so to speak, and have started doubting their ability to accomplish anything on their own.
Brain Camp’s initial horror premise isn’t nearly as creepy as the theme that emerges as the book reaches it’s conclusion. The villains of the book exploit the feelings of anxiety in Lucas and Jenn’s parents. In turn, Jenn and Lucas are subjected to a horrific process and have to become better than the previous generations to overcome it. One would be mistaken for thinking that this is just a simple zombie adventure book, but it ends up being a far more engaging and unique affair. I give it a “Highly Suggested” rating, and if you’re going to recommend it for your kid, make sure you’re not a domineering dick first.