No one can reliably predict when a piece of media is going to be a classic; no matter what you choose—books, movies, music, whatever—there are simply too many variables to know when the staying power of an album like Weezer’s Pinkerton will outlast its almost universally wretched initial reviews or whether an initial financial success will fade into obscurity in a few years. But I do think we have the ability to tell when a book should be a classic. Like Liz Prince‘s breakout graphic novel, Tomboy.
Tomboy is not revolutionary in what it’s doing; cartoonists have been telling autobiographical stories about gender, teen angst, identity, and relationships for years, and they’ll keep on doing it. What’s revolutionary about Tomboy is the way in which Prince tells her story. While most adults who have had to deal with being a square peg in society’s round gender roles will tell you that there is a failing at an institutional level that perpetuates these ideas, Prince only skirts the edges of these ideas until the last quarter of the book.
Instead, it’s told from the point of view of child/teenage Liz Prince, complete with her buying into society’s gender roles. With men serving as the majority of her childhood heroes, with the understanding that boys could be cool if they were talented, smart, skilled, or attractive while women were only cool if they were attractive, and with one of her first boy friends ruining things by wanting to be her boyfriend, Prince couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to be a girl, least of all why she would want to be one. It’s no wonder she adopted the “tomboy” label with pride.
And if Tomboy stopped right there, it would be another funny and sincere autobio story about teen angst and love and learning to love who you are; good but likely forgettable. But it doesn’t stop there. Prince has gained the trust of readers by presenting them with gender norms they are familiar with, with her teenage self perpetuating quite a few of them, and the last quarter of Tomboy is all about Prince realizing that she can be a girl on her own terms.
The level of awkwardness and humiliation presented in Prince’s teen years gives Tomboy a sincerity and a sense of humor that are necessary to win the allegiance of readers who quite likely have similar views on gender identity as her teen self did, especially if they are the young readers the book is aimed at. While Tomboy may be targeted at a young adult audience, the structure of the memoir is designed to fracture long-held ideas about how we define gender, and it can do that to readers of any age. And that is why Tomboy should become a classic graphic memoir: it can be picked up, read in an afternoon, and actually change the way someone views themselves or the rest of the world. Not bad for Prince’s first full-length graphic novel; not bad at all.
Tomboy goes on sale September 2nd at respectable comics and book sellers across the country. You can pre-order your copy straight through publisher Zest Books.