I love to daydream. I am imaginative to fault and love to stop and think of scenarios that haven’t happened and probably never will. I can look at a picture of anything, be it a sword, a dark forest, or a balcony overlooking the beach and think, “what if I was there? What if I had that? What could I do?”
What If We Were… takes that idea and greatly improves on it. Created by Canadian writer and illustrator Axelle Lenoir (Camp Spirit, Secret Passages, French Kiss), the book focuses on two teenage girls, Nathalie and Marie, and their game “What If We Were,” in which they toss different scenarios back and forth wondering what their lives would be like. They imagine what their lives would be like if they were Vikings, spies, superheroes, scientists, you name it. In the comic, the girls’ outfits and scenery change depending on what they imagined; for example, if Nathalie and Marie imagine themselves as Vikings, they teleport to be aboard a rickety boat. If they are secret agents, they’re transported to a party in spy gear, ready to rendezvous with a double agent. They show that the game can be played anytime and anywhere; at the movies, on a stoop, and even on the way to class. It’s clear they have “What If We Were” down to a science.
The friendship between Nathalie and Marie is the star of the show. They’ve been friends for eight years, and that tracks — they are incredibly close and do everything together. On the page where we first meet Nathalie and Marie, there is a bullet point in which Marie writes, “…Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m sleeping at Nat’s tonight. We’ve got homework, or something,” to which Nathalie agrees with, “and, by the way, Marie’s mom, your daughter is coming over…” It was very endearing to watch — er, read — these two go back and forth with one another; you can really feel the chemistry between them and it reminded me of some of my past friendships where one of us would eagerly go over each other’s houses unplanned and figure out the details later. I also really appreciated that they were written to sound like teenagers. That may sound odd given that they are, you know, teenage girls, but I was surprised to find that they were written with the immaturity of a teenager and not grown adults in teenager cosplay (looking at you, Riverdale.) They were sometimes rude and impulsive and standoffish and overly dramatic, like teenagers often are!
Something that I found incredibly refreshing is that What If… did not shy away from making Nathalie and Marie two different people. While that may sound odd, in other pieces of media best friend pairs are written to like the same things, eat the same food, and get offended or shocked when one of them expresses having a different interest than the other. It feels more like the best friend was created via mitosis instead of two different people with different lived experiences meeting and becoming friends. In What If…, Lenoire made it a point to show that they are their own people with their own hobbies, and that it’s okay for them not to like all the same things. In between rounds of “What If We Were,” there are pages where Nathalie and Marie list out their favorite genres of music, TV shows, movies, and the like, and there are points where either person will playfully rib the other’s choices; not maliciously, but rather in that way friends do when someone admits a guilty pleasure.
The art style in What If…shines as well. The art is full of clean, curvy lines, bold colors, and incredibly dynamic facial expressions. It completely works with the story this book is telling since it’s about two friends whose imaginations run wild. Even if a character is standing still you can tell that they’re not going to be still for very long. The poses really make Nathalie and Marie’s personalities really come to light, with Marie always looking excitable and in motion, reacting to everything with her whole body, and Nathalie being the more laid back and straight-laced of the two, having more neutral expressions than Marie.
The art becomes especially delightful when they get into a round of their game, particularly when they wonder what it would be like if they were magical creatures. As a fan of high fantasy things, it was a real treat to see these two as night elves, necromancers, barbarians, and dwarves and watch them accept or reject what they would look like. The facial expressions Nathalie and Marie make throughout the book are riotous — you can hear some of these panels just by looking at them, which only made the characters feel more like real people you’d know in real life after you’ve gotten comfortable with them. A thing I would like to add that I enjoyed is that Marie, who is a Black girl, was written as having some quirkiness and goofiness to work alongside Nathalie’s more chill self, who is white. In lots of different media, Black girls aren’t allowed to be silly and fun, often acting as moral compasses for their white counterparts who are given free reign to be impulsive and silly; I’m glad that Marie was written as a goofy Black girl, but not so goofy that it bordered on a minstrel performance.
For as interesting as Nathalie and Marie are, I wish this book did more than just show different rounds of “What If We Were.” We find out in the end that this is just one of potentially several installments of this series, so having the focus be on the game makes sense, but there still felt like something was lacking. There are promises of a more rich and complex plot, as you find out Nathalie and Marie are not straight and closeted (they use “lesbian” in the book but I want to refrain from a label until the characters use it themselves,) Marie has a crush on Nathalie, and Nathalie has a crush on another girl we meet in the later half of the book, named Jane. I understand that this is a first introduction of this world and these characters, so getting to know them and their dynamic was top priority, but it would have been interesting to see more of their personal lives and interactions with other people with they are not together; we get that a little bit, as Marie is left to her own devices for a while and it is shown that she struggles when Nathalie is not around and feels lost without her friend. I appreciated that this book showed that a very close friendship can have its faults if you only interact with one person, and I am curious to see if Nathalie and Marie expand their friendship circles in later issues, or allow themselves to be more comfortable with solitude.
All in all, the first installment of What If We Were… is a delightful introduction to two well-rounded characters and their friendship, and I am intrigued at where they will go next. No matter what, I’m rooting for them.
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