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.