12 Reasons Why I Love Her by Jamie S. Rich and Joelle Jones
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
The best love stories have unhappy or ambiguous endings. While the upbeat, romantic ending may give readers a warm, fuzzy feeling, it won't stick in their heads like a nice, melancholy climax. There's a reason Shakespeare didn't call it "The Sweet, Happy Lovin' of Romeo and Juliet." Happy endings sell tickets, but tragedy and heartbreak linger in the mind and soul.
This is particularly true in the genre of "romance comics." For many comics readers that designation conjures sappy swooners with titles like First Love Comics, Our Love Story, or My Own Romance. But 12 Reasons Why I Love Her takes a nuanced view of the highs and lows of romance, trading fairy tale fantasies for the peaks and valleys of a real relationship. The bittersweet, perfectly ambiguous climax allows an adult male to justify reading a "romance comic" without hiding from public view.
The romance of aspiring clothing designer Gwen and English teacher Evan is told in twelve vignettes, presented out of chronological order, each capturing a single, vivid moment of their time together. The effect is similar to sitting with an interesting friend who's just been dumped as he thumbs through a series of snapshots from the recently deceased relationship, providing a colorful anecdote for each. The nonlinear approach also rewards a second reading, when the individual moments attain greater significance by being placed in context.
Former comic editor-turned-novelist Jamie S. Rich (Cut My Hair) does a nice job of alternating from cute moments to downright harrowing confrontations. He makes excellent use of his fractured timeline, utilizing later events to enrich the earlier ones, most notably with Evan and Gwen's first date. In the first vignette, it starts out cringe-inducingly awful -- but is ultimately redeemed, in a later chapter that is given added weight by the events it book-ends. Alternating light tones with dark, Rich keeps the lighter, more romantic moments from feeling too squishy, in the way that happy couples can often seem nauseating to an outsider.
Sadly, Rich falls into the male writer's trap of making the woman character quirky, complex, and loveable -- every emo/hipster guy's fantasy -- while the male character comes off a bit flat, sometimes dull, pretentious, and not nearly as well-rounded. Of course, Gwen might just be a little too perfect; at times I was reminded of the Natalie Portman character in the film Garden State, who practically screams "bi-polar" -- except that would spoil the fantasy.
Thankfully, Joelle Jones's extraordinary artwork covers any rough patches. This is one of Jones's first published works, and it's remarkably, consistently dazzling. Her style is an intriguing blend of heightened realism and cartoonish exaggeration, with just a hint of manga flavoring. In her powerful expressions and striking physicality I was reminded often of Chris Bachalo (Neil Gaiman's Death: The High Cost of Living) -- although at times Jones can achieve the surreal heights of Craig Thompson's work in the sublime Blankets. She varies her style to suit the mood of each piece, and the results can be spellbinding, most notably in the fourth vignette, which is illustrated with full-page portraits of Gwen set against the changing seasons. I don't often use the adjective "lyrical" outside of describing music, but for once it fits.
Aside from presenting Jones as a talent to watch for, 12 Reasons isn't a groundbreaking work. It's a good story, one that will be familiar to anyone who has endured the slings and arrows of romance, yet distinctive enough to fall for the characters and their plight. In the end we may wonder if Evan and Gwen can (or even should) make their relationship work -- and the fact that we care is the greatest testament to the strength of this book.