Brain Camp Written by Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan
Art by Faith Erin Hicks
First Second Books, 2010
TradePaper, 151 pages.
pulled this off the Teen Section: Graphic Novels shelf at the Library.
This review is a bit of an attempt not to dismiss Brain Camp out of hand because I didn’t enjoy the read all that much–my first miss with First Second; which, when contemplating the read for a fair review, turned into a miss of a different sort, and not the kind that creates a ding.
Neither artistic, dreamy Jenna nor surly, delinquent Lucas expected to find themselves at an invitation-only summer camp that turns problem children into prodigies. And yet, here they both are at Camp Fielding, settling in with all the other losers and misfits whove been shipped off by their parents in a last-ditch effort to produce a child worth bragging about.
But strange disappearances, spooky lights in the woods, and a chilling alteration that turns the dimmest, rowdiest campers into docile zombie Einsteins have Jenna and Lucas feeling more than a little suspicious . . . and a lot afraid. ~Publisher’s Comments
If you are over the age of 12 or 13 and are looking for a scary summer camp story, Brain Camp is not for you. Could it be a fun read regardless? It has its moments, but they are few and far between. Truly, this is a graphic novel for the younger crowd who are more likely to respond in horror on cue, be appropriately grossed out, and may not have seen Doctor Who.
The novel opens with Camp Fielding, an orienteering activity in the woods, two teens arguing about who got there first. I can almost here the birdsong, the summer breeze, and then mid-argument things turn horribly wrong and we leave the two lying on the ground choking–on the feathers they can’t keep from coughing up. meanwhile… The future doesn’t look too bright for “artistic, dreamy” Jenna or “surly, delinquent” Lucas and it is a relief to the parents when a man in black shows up with two (recently vacated) slots at Camp Fielding. In a series of near-misses, the kind the Reader doesn’t fully comprehend but can appreciate, Jenna and Lucas are trying to adjust to a camp-life–nothing unusual. Eventually, after multiple path-crossings, a third wheel, and mild flirtations bring them into some romantic tension, they begin to register and consult on the strange occurrences at Camp Fielding.
It is a suspenseful turn when they are tricked into complying with the Camp’s evil intent–though how evil is yet unclear. Whatever will happen to Jenna and Lucas?!–seriously, how are they not going to turn into “docile zombies?” How are they going to avoid that gross and disturbing thing from happening to them? And why are they not changing as quickly as the others?
Jenna and Lucas decide to use their newly acquired intelligence to bring the Camp Director and his Evil Staff down–so they escape–for real this time. The next (parental) twist is a bit of a scare for the kiddies. And then the last is all the cartoon-ish flair we adore in our youth. Young love saves the day and Jenna becomes a bit of an action-hero. And let us not go without providing something gruesome–the vomiting up the–yeah, completely disgusting–and the first time I felt true horror.
I may have sounded a bit snarky but you can see how the story works. It would build with the Reader in the know, then take the story out of the Reader’s scope and build even greater unease, this before releasing the reader with necessarily melodramatic flair. Phew! that was just too crazy to be true! And then we cue the x-files music at the end for a delicious spine-tingle. The elements are there, successful devices plotted throughout, with a few nice touches of Realism to freak the young Reader out properly. Example: How to remove/witness Jenna and Lucas from their respective cabins’ “turning”: Jenna misses her key moment because she has to hurry to the bathroom; her first Period started–which is honestly terror-inducing. Lucas wakes up from wet dream about Jenna and returning from the bathroom after rinsing out his underwear, the staff are headed his way. Brain Camp thrives on adolescent fears.
Johanna’s review* at “Comics Worth Reading” mentions an episode of Doctor Who that came to mind: “School Reunion” (S: 2, E: 3); I would add “Partners in Crime” (S: 4, E: 1). You can forgive a story-line when you cannot reference one done better and the adult reader will have more of a catalog in which to reference. But there will be some who won’t mind, who enjoy the predictable ways things play out; who enjoy their part in creating the creepy atmosphere, their imagination standing in the gaps, belief suspended mid-air when necessary.
The writers Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan are familiar with the scripting of a visual story medium. It is evident in the text that complements image, and how nicely rendered the cross-cutting turned out. By paralleling the events of Jenna and Lucas when home, the story became conveniently more compact, it created tension, and formed the necessary connection/comparison between two protagonists who are first at odds with one another. They tried to make plausible what they could, develop where available, so as to create a better story in a slimmer time-line/volume. Some would argue how well this worked out for Brain Camp. I was really just appreciative of how short the story turned out, considering all the content (necessary or no).
Faith Erin Hicks was a nice choice for artist. Her style is highly accessible if not downright exciting–especially for the younger set–but not exclusively. The panels exude a lot of energy if not at times take part in some cartoon-ish exuberance. The without-text sequences are a credit, a necessity in which Hicks proves more than capable; hers is the internal dialog and the soundtrack.
In reflection (primarily for this review, which I did not want to just discard), the novel does several things right. It just requires the right audience–which is a reasonable enough request, isn’t it? I would recommend this to the Middle School set; boy and girl–though probably not right before Summer Camp; especially those specialized/learning camps.
An aside: The inside blurb uses tantalizing text (“Something isn’t quite right at Camp Fielding”) and pairs it with appropriate images from the novel. Why do not more graphic novels do this? It is brilliant.
*”Comics Worth Reading” Review.