Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Damian Alexander’s YA memoir graphic novel Other Boys, published by First Second, is one such example. “Damian isn’t like the other boys,” the cover reads. How is he different from other boys, you ask? Well, the prominent pink triangle isn’t misleading. So, does Other Boys stand out from other YA gay comics and memoirs of recent years? Is it good?
I’ll start by discussing the book’s art, which is perfect for the story. Other Boys depicts the narrator’s childhood experiences across elementary and middle school, and Alexander is very good at drawing characters who are effectively differentiated based on if they’re kids or adults. (No terrifying grown-up-looking babies here.) The facial expressions throughout are especially well done as well, helping portray personality differences (such as those between the narrator and his more brash brother) and the various nuances of gay-in-a-straight-world pain. There are several instances in which we see dramatic shifts in expressions pre- and post-rebuttal of effeminate behavior, and it’s affecting every time.
There are also some great media references that are made instantly recognizable in the art’s replication of them. Examples include old school Animal Crossing (complete with the instantly recognizable grass patterns on the ground as well as weird pointy hair-horns for the player characters) and a shot from the 2005 Fantastic Four film of Chris Evans flaming off, accompanied by the caption “Suddenly I became really interested in superheroes.” Specific references like this go a long way in depicting the daily realities of a gay childhood.
With regards to the plot, Alexander’s afterword contains a sentiment that rings true and is evidenced by the book’s structure: “A person isn’t just one story. We’re hundreds of them all tied together.” The progression of time in Other Boys isn’t perfectly linear, but the conveyance of “time” as something the narrator navigates messily and painfully is. We get glimpses into specific instances of homophobia, grief, shame, and joy, and through these we are able to relate to the bundle of memories and confusion that make up a life. One particularly notable scene emphasizes the awareness of death often possessed by those who have lost immediate family members while still young. When other children are pulling up flowers from the ground because they’re pretty, it’s only the narrator who notes the resultant deaths of the plants.
This emotional intelligence and relatability extends beyond moments of pure sadness as well. Some of the most memorable scenes are ones with an unexpected but hilarious dark humor. Take for example the young narrator, having been given action figures he didn’t want in lieu of dolls. Unsure what to do with them, he envisions the soldiers are now living post-war and suffering from PTSD rather than reveling in the thought of battle.
There are very few weaknesses to this book. One of them concerns the lettering. Words are fit into panels without caption boxes to separate them from walls, floors, etc., and usually the panel layouts are thought out well enough that this isn’t an issue. With that said, there are a few instances where the words and the world of the images clash too much, such as when narration is positioned on a character’s shirt (where, theoretically, actual text might be placed in-world).
Besides that, my other qualm is with the ending. To call back to the afterword, “a person’s life isn’t just one story.” That can understandably make it difficult to know how to wrap up the story of a life that hasn’t yet ended. Other Boys attempts to do so by putting a button on the whole thing and introducing an as yet unmentioned emotional sentiment that goes unexplored and frankly feels tacked on as if to tell young readers “Don’t worry, it gets better.” While the reasons to want to convey such a message are obvious, the actual execution of it here feels rushed and doesn’t effectively ground itself within the context of any of the brighter moments of hope that can be found throughout the book.
All in all, Other Boys is a fantastic debut. I’m far too old to be the target audience, so I can only speak as someone who was once but is no longer in similar shoes to them. Nonetheless, it’s difficult for me to imagine other troubled gay kids picking this book up and not seeing themselves reflected within its pages, and taking a moment of comfort in that. Other Boys is earnest, funny, and the best memoir I’ve read this year to date.
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