Book Review

Escape from “Special” Miss Lasko-Gross

By Morgan Seiler
Published: October 2009

Escape from “Special, a graphic novel by Miss Lasko-Gross, is a semi-autobiographic account of the middle and late childhood of a girl’s coming of age in the competitive, judgmental, over-aware suburban environment, whose hypercritical insights and painful vulnerabilities will be well-known to Persepolis readers.
Melissa, the girl’s name, is what we now call ‘Ëœquirky’ or ‘Ëœeccentric.’ A reflective, highly independent thinker, she is portrayed several times questioning or musing about things you would not expect from someone of her age’€from what other adults think of one another to a psychotherapist who arrogantly pries into his patients’ life entirely unaware of how she’s onto him.
Skillful in some ways similar to her peers, Melissa’s mind separates her from her peers, the ones she nevertheless’€and to her humiliating shame and frequent disappointments, sometimes at her own hand’€greatly desires to join.
Miss Lasko-Gross mirrors her protagonist’s confused and struggling cast of mind by willfully distorting the drawings that’€more or less’€represent that mind. Girls and young women need to feel “pretty; the culture, media, magazines and general environment tell them how to “be pretty 24/7.
So Lasko-Gross draws Melissa “unpretty, whether in school or at camp, at a swimming pool or in her room.
Lasko-Gross not only flattens the picture plane, reducing, exaggerating or unflatteringly rearranging anatomy, but compresses’€and intensifies’€emotion by using comic-book captions for Melissa’€and others”€thoughts, observations, exchanges and monologues.
Form is not the only thing altered. Lasko-Gross flattens’€or drains’€color, her panels a series of sad and caustic black-and-white-and-gray snapshots of Melissa from a young child through middle school.
Thus readers see mapped out how Melissa goes from a confused girl who wants to fit in, to a self-assured young woman who is ready to be herself, scars nicely hidden.
Girls and young women in our culture are also supposed to be “nice. Melissa is not nice, not in the sense of suppressing what she believes to be honest or important, even when what she is being honest about is wrong.
Melissa easily takes offense, spots injustice and hypocrisy with laser-like accuracy and intensity. While the personality of the youthful protagonist may appear unique, it contains more than enough parallels to make the essential elements easily (and un-easily) recognizable to many.
Melissa comes across through Lasko-Gross’s brilliant artistic flare in portraying these powerful emotions through facial expression and awkward posture, as well as critical and self-conversations that work to reveal more about Melissa than forward any sort of plot’€except getting older and getting on.
One of many complaints about graphic novels is that the reader does not get as much access to the characters’ minds/thoughts and the focus is therefore more external.
Almost the opposite goes for this book. Miss Lasko-Gross has completely tossed out the generic plot map in favor of a character-driven novel. The reader will end up caring far less about what happens and more about what Melissa thinks’€and feels’€about what has happened.
And plenty has happened, not all of it intra-psychic or internal.
Melissa undeniably had a bit of an unusual childhood. She toured, we learn, with a band, almost died, went to a school for non-mainstream learners, and was raised by incredibly understanding and positive parents who, nevertheless, had their own share of problems and failings’€very few of which escape Melissa’s (a little-too sharp eye).
Despite abasing herself before thoughtless and even nasty fellow-campers or putting a younger sister in real danger at a pool, Miss Lasko-Gross manages to engagingly narrate the age-old story of an adolescent who is torn between disinterest/dislike for social convention and the need to fit in.
Trying not to ruin the content of the book (much, much more to tell), I’ll just reveal its value.
For anyone who has, at some point in his or her life, tried to fit-in with this or that group or clique in the face of constant rebuffing, Melissa is a character who will be extremely easy to relate to.
It is actually easy’€if personally embarrassing to remember’€those AWFUL situations, to sympathize with Melissa’s attempts to navigate dangerous waters such as religion or the social circles of middle school girls (yikes!). For the others who haven’t undergone this psychologically brutal ritual experience, either through natural social ease or general apathy about the opinions of their peers, Melissa is remains an entertaining character.
Like the narrator in Persepolis, Melissa is as hard on herself as those who mistreat her.
She’s not quite sure she’s always right, many times willing to admit she was off track in a harsh judgment. But she also sees the absurdity when others insist everything is or will be “all right. And says so.
Melissa can be self-pitying (hard not to feel bad for her); she can also be funny. The discourse between her and those around her makes for a good read. Even noting what she chooses to say and what she doesn’t is humorous within itself.
Escape from “Special is not a severely dramatic memoir, fairy tale, or superhero story. It’s the narrative of someone we either are, or see every day. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader realizes that nobody really listens to Melissa, but on the other hand, she doesn’t really try to get someone to understand her or her perspective.
Yet through the medium of comedy and art, Melissa finally gets an audience to listen. Us. While the majority of the pages are full of humor, at least the kind that seems humorous when you are 10 years distant from it, there are parts now and then, here and now, that aren’t.
I don’t think they are meant to be. This is a story about the confusion of a girl who grows up labeled as “special, and all the troubles that entails in a world that would rather just smooth things over rather than confront.
Melissa is most definitely a person worth getting to know through the pages of a book.
In this regard, Miss Lasko-Gross has made a successful contribution to literature on misunderstood children. (Many of us, at one point in our lives!) If you don’t know a Melissa in real life yet, I assure you that after reading Escape from “Special,” you will want to.

The author attended Newton South many years ago.

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