Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Stereotypical Freaks by Howard Shapiro


The Stereotypical Freaks
by Howard Shapiro
Art by Joe Pekar and Ed Brisson

I will admit that, as an adult, I read middle-grade books almost never, and young adult books only slightly more often, but I was curious about Howard Shapiro's graphic novel, The Stereotypical Freaks, because it involved music and I have a soft spot for "Battle of the Bands" storylines. 

Because of my reading biases, I tried to make sure I approached the book from the viewpoint of a young reader and what they might get out of it, rather than interpreting the themes as meant for adults. Shapiro has written a touching story that, while imperfect, will still likely resonate with the pre-/early teenage set.

The Stereotypical Freaks is the story of four high school seniors — Tom, Dan, Marc, and Jacoby — who end up forming a band together, despite their different social circles at school. Tom is "the smart kid," Dan is "the geek," Mark (formerly Marcell) is the star football player, and Jacoby is the quiet Arctic-Canadian exchange student. Tom and Dan are best friends, and Tom and Mark used to play together as kids, before Mark was absorbed into the jock clique. The band comes from Tom's desire to impress Jaelithe, who is dating a stoner guy in another band. When they finally get it together and start practicing, Jacoby eventually reveals some distressing news that gives them a whole new perspective on their quest.

Shapiro divides the story into titled chapters, each with recommended listening. There are a lot of classics like The Who, Rush, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as songs from the '90s — a decade I'm not yet mentally prepared to admit has "classic" status — with songs from Rancid, Urge Overkill and The Replacements. I'm not entirely sure what decade this story is supposed to exist in, but Tom's hair and everyone's clothing suggests something more current. Because of that, I wondered why there were not any new songs listed, though it is entirely possible that the story is set in the late '90s (nu metal is mentioned). Of course, we all knew that kid in school who listened to almost nothing but old stuff, but even those music fans had a few more modern bands that they dug. With Tom being a fan of punk, I would think that his identification with that underground sensibility would have had him stumbling upon all kinds of bands online. I understand the urge to make the story more timeless, but if the book is aimed at younger readers, the playlist comes across a little bit like, "You kids need to acquaint your self with 'real' music." If I'm wrong about the timeline, then I suppose it just needed to be made more clear.

I mean, I like the recommended listening, but I'm almost thirty years old. Rancid's ...And Out Come the Wolves is a great album that any punk fan should have, but a teenage music fan is bound to have more than one band that "nobody" has heard of in their collection. Also — and this is a minor quibble, but it crossed my mind — if the band covers "Baba O'Riley," they need a keyboard player. I mean, Tom and Dan would have to be a pretty impressive guitar players to adequately adapt the song without one and still have it be any good. Maybe they are supposed to be, I don't know, but I think the song loses a lot without that additional instrumentation.

Another issue I had is that the characters, Tom especially, have a tendency to over-explain themselves and speak in a way that didn't feel natural. At one point, while talking to Jacoby about Jaelithe, Tom says:

I just over thought things. What if she said no? How would I be perceived in school? What would people think if they found out that I had even asked her out? How'd they look at her if she said yes?

It just doesn't seem like something a teenage boy would say out loud, in that way, outside the protective shell of a bedroom. I am more understanding of the internal monologue being very analytical and dramatic, as that's both typical of Tom's age and more traditional in the comic/graphic novel format. I guess my complaint is that the importance of different themes is overly spelled out, when maybe we should trust a younger reader to make that leap for themselves.

Still, like I said, I'm not the intended audience. Shapiro has still written characters that non-adult readers can identify with in some way, and Freaks reinforces the message that, no matter how together someone may seem, we all feel misunderstood at times and we all have our problems. It's meant to be a feel-good story with a hefty dose of perspective. I don't know if older teenagers would get much out of it for that reason — as Dan shows, high school seniors are well on their way to being cynics — but for the under-15 set? Sure. My eight-year-old daughter immediately picked up the book when it arrived in the mail and asked if she could read it when I was done with it. I said yes. Though I'm not highly concerned about it, other parents might be pleased to know that there's no swearing in Freaks. (Even if there was a bit, my daughter is currently the type to mentally go, "Inappropriate!" and quickly keep on with the story, which I guess makes my life easier.) As long as your kid has the ability to read a longer book and is interested, then this a good graphic novel to pass along. Though the novel revolves around four boys, I still think girls can appreciate it as well. The story is bittersweet and one sees the ending coming, but it is handled in a touching and sincere way.


Full Disclosure: The book was sent to me by the author. I thank him for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

The book will be released tomorrow, November 14, and is a Goodreads giveaway until the 16th.

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