Is there any time in life more miserable than middle school? You could not pay me enough to go back in time and re-live those years of my life! From awkward bodies growing (or not) at a maddening pace, to the raging hormones which make faces look like pizza and girls with any kind of curves the most sought after in school, there is no easy way to navigate middle school.
In the self-published comic, Eighth Grade by Sam Alden, three teenagers attempt to navigate these troubled times. Simon is the focal point of the story. He is fourteen, awkward, and not successful in school or life. Classically under-performing, Simon lies to his teachers, gets beaten down by the school bully, and has no friends other than the hapless Tom. Tom is gifted with a wealthy mother and an over-active imagination. He provides condescending narration for those around him in the way that only a true outsider can. He and Tom spend their lunch hours saying mean things about everyone else in a “hate them before they hate us” manner.
One of their many subjects is Emma, another eight grader who has been cursed with hormones which have given her c-cup breasts. Far from being a source of pride or joy, her new body has made her a source of conversation among her friends, as well as many onlookers. However, after a chance dinner where Emma is invited to his house, Tom and Emma become friends. The next day when Emma is being harassed at school, Tom loses his cool and sticks up for her. However, his efforts do little more than result in him getting stomped by the aforementioned bully.
Alden creates three characters whose entangled lives simultaneously make surviving the ins and outs of eighth grade easier and more complicated. While being friends makes Tom and Simon’s life easier, the addition of Emma into the mix disrupts the balance between the two, and Tom feels left out. It is all too common a problem between friends and it rings true in the book. While it should be a good thing that a new person is being added to the group, rarely is it a smooth transition.
Alden’s characters are complex and real. Several times I just wanted to shake them and say, “No, you idiot! That’s not what is really happening!” But, then again, I felt the same way when I was going through eighth grade. No one sever seemed to understand what I was trying to do or say.
The art in Eighth Grade has an awkward and imperfect feel to it which mimics the emotional state of the characters. None of the people in the book are attractive. There are hints that they may grow out of the awkwardness (Emma cleans up pretty well), but for now there is stringy hair and unfortunate attempts at mustaches. Alden has a strong sense of design, taking scenes and figuring out different angles and approaches to make them more interesting since so much of the book is talking heads.
In the third book, Alden branches out from the literal and adds more symbolic pieces to his art. There is an impending storm on the horizon which mimics the turmoil brewing in the lives of each of the characters. In addition, there is a scene where Simon is running through the woods and his body loses cohesion, echoing the unraveling of his word around him. It is a fantastic progression to the story and does not overshadow or detract in the least. Hopefully Alden will continue to push the boundaries of his storytelling as the series progresses.
There are currently three volumes in print, with all of them plus a little bit more published on the web. Alden does not appear to have an online store, so you may have to contact him directly if you would like to buy the issues in print. Eighth Grade is worth a trip down memory lane, even if it is to remind you just how awful that time was in your life.