If I’m honest with you, reader? I’m probably not the person who should be reviewing the Forest Hills Bootleg Society. As a cishet male nearing 40, I’m clearly not the intended audience for this story of teen-aged girls grappling with the high-school social environment, their own sexuality, and ethical identities. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the work for its own merits, but I figured I’d get that statement out of the way for context.
Forest Hills Bootleg Society follows a group of four young women enrolled at a remote Christian academy who come into posession of a collection of obscure (and semi-erotic) anime DVDs. Each of the girls maps to some semi-familiar tropes for a lot of coming-of-age stories: the doomed romantic, the reserved anxious one, the abrasive sarcastic outsider, and object of everyone’s affection. That last case is a bit of a reductive description of the characterization of Kelly, but character is mostly defined by her relationship to the other girls. I want to stress that tropes aren’t necessarily bad, just that after reading the opening chapter, you have a firm-enough understanding of who our four leads are and what to expect from them.
Character archetypes aren’t the only familiar storytelling mechanism in the book either, as FHBS will frequently divert from the story to share brief infographics to varying degrees of success. Some provide genuine intimate details of our characters that may have been lost in less explicit messaging, some are harmless goofs, and a few feel like missed opportunities. Learning about the origin of Kelly’s anime fandom, for example, provides background to the character’s primary trait in the book, the one about Melissa’s mustache, on the other hand, is not as funny or humanizing as may have been intended. The book also makes liberal use of image captions (ala Scott Pilgrim and a million other books and movies) for contextual information, chiefly when introducing a new character and/or on group scenes used for gags. Again, it’s not that they feel particularly out of place in this kind of story, it’s just another factor that lends familiarity to this book.
Familiarity aside, there is much to enjoy in this book. The dialogue by Dave Baker is typically top notch. The characters are articulate and intelligent in the way you want your protagonists in these kinds of stories to be, but seldom feel surreal or doctored. It’s both natural and age appropriate given the demographic and setting of the story, and the character relationships all make sense and flow naturally. Without getting into spoilers, there is a third act development that dramatically shifts the dynamic of the FHBS, but it is an earned change that makes sense for all involved. Baker did the work.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case in the book. While the journey of Melissa is a high point, Brooke and Kelly remain essentially the same throughout the story without any meaningful growth or changes, and Maggie’s story is largely one of silent development. It’s odd that in a book with a propensity toward exposition (be it in text, infographic or image caption) a character’s suffering would be well depicted (I’ll touch on the art of Nicole Goux in a moment, but suffice to say it’s good stuff) and yet not obvious.
It’s a deliberate storytelling choice, and I get why it was made (it sets Maggie’s story apart, and reflects the isolation the character feels) but it’s hard to call it a slam dunk. It feels like a few captions here and there could have helped strengthen the work that Goux puts in, though too many would derail the emotional impact of the late game reveals.
However, it has to be said, the resolution of the book comes rather abruptly. There is a setup there that had the promise to develop each of the characters if we were allowed to see the aftermath – instead we were whisked to a series of epilogue vignettes that leave the end of the story feeling a bit deflated. There are a number of other interesting story beats that are hinted at but not followed up on, as well, and it’s sort of a shame. It leaves readers wanting more, but not in a positive way.
I haven’t touched much on the art as yet, but it is one of the stronger elements of the book. It’s a stylized, cartoonish style that harkens back to similar graphic novels, particularly the pencils of Bryan Lee O’Malley in the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim. Unlike many of her contemporaries, however, I feel it needs to be mentioned how well rendered a lot of the backgrounds and group shots are. The figures and characters each have their own unique look and are distinct enough that even the party sequence doesn’t have notable repeat faces or characters. Goux has a knack for busy pages, and while it is remarkable, there are some times on an uncolored page where it can get a little too crowded for legibility. Those are few and far between, however.
Overall, Forest Hills Bootleg Society is a fun and mostly light read that will likely speak more to young women, or those whose nostalgia lines up more directly with our central cast. For others it is a fine, yet ultimately forgettable book that doesn’t reach far enough to be shocking, isn’t funny enough to be considered comedy, and is just familiar enough that it sort of blends together with a lot of other coming-of-age stories. It feels like a book that had something to say, but rushed to an end before it got the chance to get its message across.
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