Young Adult Literature (YAL) is a genre geared toward creating context through universal themes and issues that happen most often during adolescence. YAL is extremely broad (which is a good thing in one sense as it makes labeling concretely something as YAL difficult), offering as a genre a variety of stories to suit taste and preference. YAL has been around since the mid-1960’s when S.E. Hinton’s first novel The Outsiders was published, and has grown as a genre into serialized publishing mega-blockbusters in the 21st century with titles such as the Twilight books, The Hunger Games trilogy, and the entire Harry Potter series. YAL holds strong appeal when written well through tapping into universal themes and conflicts that happen during adolescence. An example of YAL themes and topics that are universal are alienation and maturation occurring inside and outside of school, and both of those themes are found in this new OGN The Reason for Dragons (TRFD), with an interesting undercurrent of questions of masculine identity.
It’s not the education part that’s hard. It’s the social part.
With a growing awareness of forms of bullying (especially with social media and technology, e.g., cyberstalking, flaming, trolls, etc.), stories that look even slightly at bullying during adolescent development, even if set in a now seemingly more quaint time (the 1980s, the time period TRFD is set in), are intriguing as possible artifacts for discussions about the forms that bullying can take and the instances in which they can happen. TRFD is about facing down obstacles, an overused metaphor I will talk a bit more about further down in this write-up. Such obstacles in TRFD are people, people who could choose to possibly share so many things to communicate with others but instead ostracize out of fearing confronting themselves or having to answer to others within a social sphere or peer group. The emotional hooks that come with watching an underdog-type like Wendell, the adolescent protagonist of TRFD, seems to hit the right notes deep inside for the reader—it is a story you know, but the way it is presented and the way you want it to unfold lead you forward with it, almost like eating a comfort food that you know exactly what you are going to get (maybe this is also comparable to monthly superhero titles?), and you very much want to finish it to get the endorphin payoff to fire in your brain. This story is not all candy though, and as is indicative of good writing, in reading TRFD I could not help but think how bullying has many forms (e.g., physical contact, verbal abuse, psychological torment) that proliferate due to a majority perpetuating their own accepted societal normative behavior, especially within the micro-societal systems that are schools.
Is confronting bullying as easy as having conversations and awareness in schools? Perhaps. Myself, my siblings and friends matured at a time when you had to stand up for yourself in a physical environment to gain respect (a theme in TRFD), and even if you did point out a bully you were told to confront that person. Did that mean violence? More times than not yes, I’m not proud of it nor do I feel that some of the scrapes I got in really proved anything, other than I got the hell kicked out of me on more than one occasion, and no one spoke of the incidents or even initiated conversations about what happened and why. What is troubling though, as violence continues to escalate in schools and society as so many pressures about being alive continue to mount, is that I see respect then and now (as I have seen in my time teaching in public schools) continuing to live under the shadow that respect in adolescence (and even in adulthood) can only primarily be shown through violence or the intent of violence, verbal or physical. This is such a large, difficult subject to unpack, and at least TRFD stimulates a question on, in my mind, the topic of bullying. Such small stimulus in the context of education (both formal and personal) is important as culture must have stories that promote more than one discussion or even a handful of conversations within the entire spectrum of one’s own formative education about topics that are often considered to be “norm”.
“All men must fight battles, big or small”
The above quote is a difficult sentence/statement that comes at one point early in the story, because while the sentiment is in the right place, the way it is delivered sheds light about a certain masculine hegemony about facing odds, which I think TRFD addresses. The above statement about “battles” comes out of the mouth of the knight, who can represent an archetype himself of certain masculine ideas (a paragon basically). That statement, however complicated, situates the story as one identifiable for readers, feeding back into the idea of the protagonist Wendell dealing with not only the shadow of a dead father but trying to deal with a well-intentioned stepfather (a war veteran mechanic), a man who is “manly” working with his hands; peers who are bullying him with abusive profanity verbally into taking a risk; and Wendell’s own struggle with loving fantasy and adventure (as depicted in a full-page spread of his bedroom) making him feel alienated and alone.
There are three central males in the book, but I could only identify two who have their own transformative journey from specific identities to new identities that have developed through sharing common interest and derived from a wanting to care, thus combating the idea of how masculine identity does not have to be static and mired in aggressive behavior. The journey boils down to another firm structure of storytelling–the father/son narrative, but this time it is the stepfather/son narrative that shows the development. Wendell is in the transformation of being an adolescent who can feel comfortable as a young adult searching for guidance and acceptance; his stepfather is becoming a father that realizes the importance of balancing his own projections of what he considers important (knowing how to change the oil in your vehicle) with the needs of Wendell.
A question of metaphor
So what is the reason for dragons? Largely metaphorical where dragon equates adversity. The types of dragons, however, are more universal than we think, and how that universal subject matter is handled is tricky. Is the dragon equating adversity a heavy handed or over-utilized metaphor? Yes, but balancing out that metaphor is Jeff Stokely’s character work with Wendell, whose underdog status is immediately established when the reader sets eyes on him. Without such an identifiable/relatable design, I think the story would have suffered.
Sean Murphy’s “concepts” are being used in TRFD for good reason—he worked on a variation of the project for some time which is described in the introduction in the book. Murphy has a distinct style of dark lines and sharp edges, not only in environment but also in character physiognomy, and his work continues to be of great interest as his catalogue includes Grant Morrison’s Joe the Barbarian (a Morrison YAL gem that will get its due over time), Scott Snyder’s American Vampire (in which he shares a lot of sensibility with series regular Rafael Albuquerque) and his own Punk Rock Jesus, a book that currently sits on my shelf and that I hope to spend some time with in the not to distant future. Jeff Stokely, the artist who came on to actual realize writer Chris Northrop’s story, is not a Murphy clone, instead, he puts his own visual stamp upon the work.
Stokely’s strength, in fact a major strength, is in character design in TRFD (as well as a few moments of some great full page design, such as the example below). Wendell’s design is a good composite of all that can be awkward about development—skinny legged, discursive features that are reminiscent of an Ichabod Crane type (jugheaded). The knight is a variation on a young Don Quixote–pointy nose, pointy facial hair, homemade armor, suffering from a possible delusion brought on by a serious detachment from reality (think about the dragon as the windmill/giant) about a creature that may or may not exist. Stokely uses facial features to help augment or punch up important emotional moments, and a story like TRFD is always aiming to hit you in the sentimental midsection.
TRFD is a nice slice of adolescent life, but I do have to look at such stories in a reflective manner due to being so far away now from those developmental years. The filmmaker John Hughes supposedly once said that the older he got he realized that he couldn’t write about adolescents anymore after such films as Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because it was just too far away in his memory and his experiences. Northrop and Stokely have not come up short with this adolescent adventure, and TRFD hits the right notes with me by making that little memory in me awaken and identify with the struggles of Wendell.