Monday, April 19, 2010

Penny, Aggie, and High School Catharsis

A couple of weeks ago, I attended WonderCon, San Francisco's smaller, less stressful answer to Comic Con. As I mentioned, I got a chance to say hello to Something Positive creator Randy Milholland. Something Positive is one of those comics that gives me a special happy when it pops up in my reader, so I'm always excited to see Milholland at a con.

I mentioned that I rather enjoy the current story arc he has running with Helen, a character on the run from T Campbell's Penny and Aggie

"That's good," he said, "because I hate writing them."

A little background: Helen began life in the high school dramedy Penny and Aggie. She starts out as a member of the vicious Omega Clique of social outcasts, but gradually drifts into wicked bitch Karen and fledgling activist Aggie's circles. However, as the long-simmering war between Karen and her rivals escalates, Helen spirals into self-destruction, allowing herself to be used sexually and socially. Her fragile social life simply can't survive the fallout.

So one day, T just ships her off. Seriously, he sticks her on a bus headed for Boston and announces that her story will continue over at Something Positive -- which is to say T browbeat Milholland into dealing with her. He told Milholland he could do anything he wanted with Helen: keep her, send her back, kill her, whatever. From Randy's tone, I suspect T half hoped that an alligator would spring from a trap door and swallow her whole.

I knew that Helen wasn't the most popular character in the Penny and Aggie Tea Room, but I was surprised to learn she was such a millstone around Campbell's neck. To be honest, I've always enjoyed Helen stories. Yes, it can be frustrating to see a character make the same mistakes again and again, but it's clear why Helen makes those mistakes, and I find the combination of her knowing inner monologue with inexorable pull to keep making those errors interesting to watch.

But Milholland said something that hadn't occurred to me: many Penny and Aggie readers feel they were Helen in high school, and they want to see her redeemed. You see, I had failed to consider that, for many people, Penny and Aggie isn't mere entertainment. It's catharsis.

T Campbell specializes in fantasy worlds where we can exorcise our adolescent demons. After all, he's the creator of Fans!, the comic where a group of fanboys and fangirls become the world's greatest heroes. And even though Penny and Aggie is supposed to represent something akin to a real high school,  it still exists in a fantasy universe. It's a Joss Whedon version of high school, sans the vampires: everything is a little brighter, the dialogue is sharper, and just about everyone is redeemable, if not actually redeemed. Penny finds meaning and power in her popularity beyond mere shallow girl posing. Aggie's aimless activist impulse gets an outlet when she stops thinking globally and starts reaching out to the people around her. Even Karen finds some fulfillment in going from ugly duckling to black-souled swan, even if things go badly for her later on. If, in high school, you were the pretty bitch, the rebel without a cause, desperately closeted, hiding an eating disorder, or using wearing your religion/politics/body type as armor, you can visit the P&A world, where your high school history has been somewhat rewritten. P&A is the version of high school where you self-actualized, where you hung out with those goofy drama kids, where you took your nose out of your book and let yourself have fun, where you stopped performing for five minutes and actually connected with another human being, where you had coffee with that cute nerdy guy.

I can understand, then, when even sour-faced evangelical Charlotte gets a crack at that alternate high school history, that the Helens of the world are a little bitter that they don't get theirs. When I talked to Randy, he teased a little bit of what's next for Helen, and it will be interesting to see how the P&A fans feel when all is said and done. Helen may get her own catharsis, but catharsis ain't always pretty.


T Campbell... said...

I wouldn't quite describe Helen as a "millstone around my neck," but she was definitely becoming a problem for me to handle on my own. Many of Penny and Aggie's characters have dealt with redemption somehow, but Helen's problems run a lot deeper than most of theirs. Even Charlotte always acknowledged, on some deep level, that the worst of her problems with her peers were her own doing, her responsibility. Helen doesn't get that, and even peers who want to support her, like Aggie, ultimately get frustrated or driven away.

It had reached the point where I don't think Helen could have been helped by anyone in the existing cast. And we already were planning to have Michelle see a psychologist (something Helen's folks probably wouldn't invest in) and introduce a band of new people for Sara's story, so those were two more closed avenues. The idea to take Helen back to Randy-- who was instrumental in her formative stories, and who has characters that SPECIALIZE in reality checks whom Helen can't hurt like she hurt Aggie-- seemed like the logical next step.

I think Randy's got something to say with the character, and at this point, I think it's best to just get out of his way!

Lauren Davis said...

@T Campbell: Thanks for chiming in, T! I agree, it sounds like Randy has some interesting things in store for Helen that should, at the very least, shake her awake.

I'm fascinated by the drive to heal Helen at all. Not all children grow up, after all. Do you feel an emotional responsibility, after creating such a badly damaged character, to give her the opportunity to grow?

T Campbell... said...

I'm torn. I feel like anyone can make a better life for themselves. But some people just DON'T, and I think literature that's meant to be supportive can end up being enabling-- encouraging some people to wait for a dramatic life-changing event, instead of making their own.

The "point" of Helen, basically, is that you can't blame other people for what you control, no matter how sympathetic your "type" or backstory. (And yeah, her story echoes Karen's in that respect.)

At one time, I felt like leaving her on her self-destructive spiral was the best way to get that across to the most people. But Randy has a way of bringing characters to moments of clarity that might ultimately serve her purpose even better.

I love her, but ultimately, she's fictional. The service that she can perform in real people's lives, however small that may be, has to be the most important thing.

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