Rick Spears and Emmett Helen take us back to the early 1990s rock scene and riot grrrl movement in the YA graphic novel My Riot. Published by Oni Press, My Riot follows the story of a teenager named Valerie Simmons. She’s got everything: mad ballet skills, friends, and parents who love her. What more could she want? A life to call her own.
Follow the rules
When we first meet Val, she appears pretty unremarkable as far as seventeen-year-olds go. She just got her first job at an ice cream shop and now it is off to ballet, an activity she’s done since she was a child. Val has a tendency to overshare with strangers, has an attitude, and wants her parents to leave her alone. Pretty standard young adult stuff. Val knows something is missing from her life, she just isn’t sure what.
What Val seems to want is to find her authentic self. The daughter of conservative-ish parents, she finds herself wanting desperately to break free from their expectations. That’s not easy when you feel trapped in regimens and rules. As a ballerina, Val is used to following and adhering to others expectations for her. That’s something many readers will be able to identify with.
Val has been doing ballet for so long it just feels like what she does, not who she is. Does she even care about it, or is she simply following the rules so her parents will be happy with her?
“I want to change but I’m scared.”
As teens, many of us will recall acting out of habit rather than out of desire or passion. Sometimes it takes a big event to wake us up and help us see that we’re in charge of finding what fuels us. That’s exactly what happens to Val.
Val’s first day on the job at a local ice cream shop doesn’t go according to plan. A riot outside causes some store damage but the events outside is only an obvious metaphor for the riot happening within the protagonist.
Sheltering alongside Val in the ice cream shop is a girl named Kat. Kat is punk rock, the opposite of Val’s ballet friend Sara. Sara wants to do everything right by her dance teacher (and presumably other figures of authority). That’s not where Val is in her life. She’s had sex, she has boobs, and she’s gained weight. To her parents, she’s out of control. For Val, however, she’s just at a crossroads.
Early in My Riot, Val is told she has to lose weight by any means necessary in order to appear in the next ballet. Apparently, male dancers won’t lift anyone over 115 pounds. The topic of weight demonstrates one of the main gripes I have with the narrative. At times, it feels overly formulaic. The tough ballet teacher, the conservative parents, the boys in the story never quite get the development they deserve in terms and because of this, renders them contrived.
The riot outside the ice cream shop feels like the only reason it is there is to serve as the inciting event. That is especially true because we never hear about the riot again. This makes the riot itself feel arbitrary. If Val needed a way of experiencing a personal awakening there were probably other avenues Spears and Helen could have relied on. While not a deal-breaker, it is something I noticed. Still, at least the riot introduces us to Kat. Kat shows Val the local punk scene, mosh pits, and the fine art of not giving a sh*t.
Voice: almost found
There is a generic quality to the way the narrative of My Riot unfolds. That’s not entirely a bad thing; my life is generic as Hell. Some stories don’t have to go substrata to be deep. Some stories are even allowed to be a little cliche. The missteps within My Riot aren’t deal-breakers, but they keep the GN from being as good as it could be. What My Riot lacks in originality, though, it attempts to make for with heart.
As Val blossoms into her friendship with Kat and other members of the punk rock scene, she begins to find out she isn’t who she thought she was. She’s not a prima ballerina her mom wants her to be at all, she’s someone with something to say.
Val, Kat and a new addition to the group, Rudie, form a band called The Proper Ladies. I found myself wishing the inspiration for the band didn’t stem from a boy Val was interested in. For me, too much of her growth as a character comes as a response to being mistreated by love interests. This doesn’t render the graphic novel unreadable, it’s just a little disappointing.
For a 184-page graphic novel, there’s simply too much of Val’s life they are trying to pack in. There are times when it feels like two separate novels because the pacing of the first half is distinctly different than the latter. At first, we dive more into Val’s day-to-day but by the middle, we are progressing years at a time.
Val has a difficult relationship with her parents and I wish we got to see their relationship dynamic explored more. The tension and explosive anger between Val and her mom are some of the best parts of My Riot. It’s clear the mom is having a hard time with Val’s transition from child to adult. There’s a phenomenal scene between Val and her mother in a car that rang so epically true to me, it was hard to read. Even these moments, however, would hit harder if the reader was given more context. It’s one of the ways My Riot, by having so many different threads, ends up feeling less impactful than it should.
The few times the narrative is given space happen to be my favorite parts of the book. It’s where we get to see the talented work of illustrator Emmett Helen shine.
Helen depicts human emotion in subtle, heartbreaking ways. They strike a delicate balance between the realistic and evocative. One of the more touching moments comes courtesy of Helen’s portrayal of the terse battle between parent and child. I won’t spoil it here, but my favorite moment of My Riot is one between the father and mother. It is blissfully simple and filled with pain. It’s short on dialogue but big on feels. I wish the graphic novel had allowed for more of these moments. It’s simply trying to do too much with too little space and My Riot steps on its own toes because of it.
An almost riot
My Riot is not going to blow you away, but that’s kind of the point. The setting doesn’t take place in someplace remarkable, there are no magic powers uniting strangers across time and space. Instead, readers follow a struggle most of us can relate to: finding out who you are.
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