Wednesday, September 7, 2016

'Super Mutant Magic Academy' Is Hogwarts for the Rest of Us


How can I best put this? If Hogwarts and Xavier's School for the Gifted had a school-baby, it would be Super Mutant Magic Academy. I'm not entirely sure that's the official name of the school in Jillian Tamaki's fantastic webseries compilation book Super Mutant Magic Academy, but it might as well be. It's a school full of magical kids with superpowers or shapeshifting abilities or lizard-heads, so the comparison to the great magical boarding schools of other media seems pretty apt.

Super Mutant Magic Academy is not, however, anything like Harry Potter or The X-Men or any one of the hundred other coming of age while at boarding school stories there are out there. And that's a good thing. The book doesn't give us another chosen one following his destiny while his classmates rally around him and fight in an epic war, nor does it have superpowered children being molded into a cohesive fighting unit to battle a population that hates them.

Instead, Super Mutant Magic Academy is a magical coming of age story for the rest of us. It's like if Hogwarts and Xavier's School for the Gifted had a school-baby, but that school-baby grew up to be kind of an underachiever. I mean that in the best possible way, but it feels like I'm not explaining this correctly. So let's take this from a different angle.

Jillian Tamaki's Super Mutant Magic Academy isn't a graphic novel so much as a series of vignettes about the magical and science-fiction-y teenagers attending some exclusive school for special children. There's not a lot of plot, and there's frankly not a lot of backstory on what the school is, why it's there, and what the world they live in is really like. Some of the kids have very clear and defined powers. A lot of them don't. No one makes a big deal about it either way, though, which is oddly refreshing for this genre.

Originally published as a webcomic (from 2010 to 2015, I believe), the book is really just a compilation of most of the comics in a rough order. It's episodic and sporadic and really all the better for it. Tamaki's art is loose and sketchy, but she still manages to convey deep emotions and clear character interactions even without a lot of shading or any color. You don't need detail to know what the characters want and who they are, which speaks well of Tamaki as an artist and a writer.

But the real strength here is how the book bucks traditional coming of age narrative structure, and rather puts us smack in the middle of a bunch of teenagers and lets us just sit with them for a while. Instead of being a tightly-written story about students fighting some ancient evil or trying to graduate, this book is more like being forcibly reminded of what your own coming of age was probably like. Or at least what mine was like. Formless, more impressions than any overarching story structure, and full of a bunch of idiotic teenagers trying to figure out what kind of people they want to be. 

The main character, if the book has one, is Marsha, a vehement misanthrope who struggles to fit in with her classmates, or to figure out if she even wants to fit in with her classmates. Marsha carries a burning torch for her roommate Wendy, a fox-spirit teenage girl who is struggling with her own sense of who she is, what she wants, and how to stop eating small animals while in fox-form. 

Marsha's love for Wendy and her occasional attempts to tell Wendy about it form the spine of the book, which covers approximately one year of their high school life*, but that's as close as the story comes to being a linear narrative. Instead, it's about people and the choices they make as they're growing up. 

Some of the characters figure more largely than others, like Cheddar, an occasionally obnoxious occasionally sweet jock, Frances, the school's resident bad-girl performance artist, Everlasting Boy, the boy who cannot die, and Trixie, a dinosaur girl who spends almost all of her time fretting about boys and getting her own way. But the whole cast can be characterized as, well, the sort of people you meet in any high school, just with the occasional magical powers or bird-head.

I guess that's why I like it, really. Super Mutant Magic Academy isn't trying to tell a story bigger than its characters' ambitions, and there's something very appealing in that. Marsha wants to kiss Wendy, Wendy wants to go to prom, Frances wants her art to get her in trouble, Trixie wants a hot boyfriend, and Everlasting Boy wants...something. Probably. The fun of the book isn't in seeing these misfits bond together to take on society, it's watching them cut class, kiss each other, and figure out if they even want to go to college. The fun is the poignant and cutting way that Tamaki has managed to get at the heart of what it's like to grow up.

Growing up, for me at least, wasn't an all-or-nothing proposition. I'm not Harry Potter, I'm not Katniss Everdeen, I'm not Jean Gray, and I definitely wasn't in high school. There was no one moment when I knew I had become an adult, that I had left childhood behind. If anything, I was Marsha wishing she were Frances, an awkward dorky girl insisting she liked being frumpy and weird because she was secretly convinced no one would buy it if she ever tried not to be. I wanted to be a great performance artist, but mostly I just ended up playing Dungeons and Dragons and watching bootlegs of RENT with my friends. I didn't grow up in a battle between good and evil, I just looked around one day and realized I was. I think that's more people's experience than not.

Super Mutant Magic Academy is an unfiltered view of teenagerdom, where a girl might have the head of a bird, but if she's got a nice rack no one will care. It's a world where the bad boy can casually mention that he has a stamp collection, where wi-fi signals are confused for the "resonance of the Chosen One", and where going to prom or not matters just as much and as little as it does in real life. For all that it's a story about magical mutants, this book is probably the most realistic portrayal of high school I've ever seen.

And I think we need that right about now.

Look, it's almost time for school to start up again, and for a lot of people school brings with it the pressure to feel like your life is really starting, like you're going somewhere, like you have a purpose and a plan. Super Mutant Magic Academy is here to remind all of us that it's okay if you don't yet. It's okay if you don't have a plan, it's okay if you're too lazy to walk across the room to pick up your wand to conjure some nachos, it's okay if you're not sure if you want to go to college or even if you should, and it's okay to spend a lot of your time terrified of the future.

You don't have to spend your life figuring out what your life is - there's some beauty in the not knowing. There's that trite saying that life is what happens while you're busy making other plans, but I have to admit I've found it to be pretty true.

So. Hogwarts is great and Xavier's School for the Gifted is grand and, heck, I'll even throw in a shout-out to Camp Half-blood here. But those are schools for the chosen ones, schools for the people who know what they're doing, who are caught up in destinies far bigger than their own, who live large, elaborate lives and write history.

For the rest of us there's Super Mutant Magic Academy. And I am grateful for that.


*Junior year, maybe? It's hard to tell.

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