Book review: An honest look at life - through a teenage superhero's eyes

Sydney has a superpower. It might be a great, big superpower, though it may just be a small one. She has the ability to cause severe pain inside people's heads. She's a teenager, so that may not seem so exceptional, but it's actual physical pain, and we get to see her use it on her best friend's jerk boyfriend.

The power comes with a price, though. Legendary superhero creator Stan Lee once said, "With great power comes great responsibility." He didn't mention throwing up, though, which Sydney does whenever she uses her power, and he didn't mention the self-loathing. The ability makes Sydney feel like a freak, the same as zits on her thigh and the shape of her body.

And even though she has a superpower, that doesn't mean Sydney doesn't have a life to attend to, problems to deal with. It doesn't mean she isn't grappling for her place in the world or trying to understand her own sexuality. It doesn't mean she can grasp what happened with her dad, or begin to figure out a way to get along with her mother or function well in school. It doesn't mean she can get over the massive psychological gloom that engulfs her.

And it doesn't mean she feels like she has enough control over the superpower anyhow, especially after an incident during a sexual encounter where she lets herself go for a moment.

Much of Charles Forsman's cartooning has centered around aimless, troubled teens. The Adams-based cartoonist's ideas have found a real audience with the Netflix series adapted from his graphic novel "The End of the F—g World," which has been met with dizzying acclaim from reviewers who even in this supposed golden age of television crave something honestly fresh.

What's fresh about that series is what's fresh about Forsman's work across the board and particularly on display in "I Am Not Okay With This" — honesty. That's a tricky thing when you're portraying troubled teenagers because honesty requires the presentation of life as it is, not as you wish it would be. Life is ugly and hard and depressing and fun and hilarious and absurd. Sentimentality is seldom reflective of life as it is lived, and yet it may provide a required buffer to keep us from imploding in on ourselves. Life is a series of contradictory emotions sometimes occurring right on top of each other.

That's what comes through as Forsman chronicles Sydney's traumas in context of the mundanity of her life. And that's what happens as she is revealed to have a fantastic, life-altering power. Comic books are filled with characters who gain power that transforms them psychologically as well as physically, and in doing so changes their fates. Sydney at one point reminds herself that she is not Spider-Man, and it's precisely Peter Parker's famous alter ego that is the epitome of that transformation fantasy as if all the materials he lacked for emotional health to turn around his life were contained in that radioactive spider bite.

Was Stan Lee lying? Or maybe it is a hard-to-decipher truth. The great responsibility of great power might just be too much for some of us. Many of us might not be prepared for what that means, especially when we are young. Living without superpowers is hard enough.

Forsman's strength is that he is unrelenting in portraying the psychological reality of people struggling to come of age. He refuses to sugar coat it. At the same time, much like David Lynch, he sees the humor that's dancing alongside the despair. Sydney is charming and smart and funny. She's also alarming and hurtful. Any of us could be Sydney, and few of us would be saved by the miracle of superpowers. Forsman remembers those truths and keeps them close inside his storytelling.

Read it

"I Am Not Okay With This"

By Charles Forsman

Fantagraphics Books

160 pages


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