“That’s the beat of concrete, the beat of machines, of mobile phones and plasma screens … how much junk in my life do I really need?”
Up next in my big pile of graphic novels that I’m trying to catch up on is Decelerate Blue, which is written by Adam Rapp and drawn by Mike Cavallaro. It’s published by First Second and bears a price tag of $17.99, or $14 at the Amazon link below, which will send some money my way if you choose to use it for any purchase, not just this book!
First Second has a reputation for publishing good comics for all ages, and Decelerate Blue is certainly geared slightly toward teenagers, but that doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy it, right? Rapp, apparently, writes YA novels, so it’s not surprising that we get a story of a 15-year-old girl in this comic. There’s a lot to like about Decelerate Blue, which is why the fact that it’s ultimately disappointing so annoying. The basic premise is solid, but Rapp surrounds it with such a clichéd teen rebellion story that it just doesn’t work. It’s frustrating.
The story concerns Angela, a teen who lives in an accelerated world. Everything is fast, from eating to shopping to even sleeping (they explain how in the book, fret not). Everyone ends every sentence with “go,” as in “Today I ate a hamburger. Go.” because they want the next person to talk quickly, and this odd tic makes the dialogue actually read faster, which is Rapp’s point. Angela has begun dropping her “goes” and talks of reading the real version of “Romeo and Juliet” and hanging out with her grandfather, who’s going to be moved to a “reduction colony” (which sounds nice and sinister) because his heart rate is getting too slow. Her grandfather tells her to dig up something at the tree where he and her grandmother used to go, and when she does, she accidentally falls into an underground tunnel, where a “slow-down” resistance movement hangs out. She discovers that they can take out the chip that every person has installed in their arm (which they use to buy things faster, but also the government can track them), they can “de-bug” you from your accelerated pace, and they have access to stuff like the real version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Angela falls in love with the place and with Gladys, another teen who’s been there a while, but of course, the book can’t have too happy an ending, can it? “THE MAN” IS TOO OPPRESSIVE!!!!! So shit hits the fan, and while I don’t want to spoil the ending, I do want to consider how problematic it is. It’s a fairly typical YA kind of plot (at least I think it is based on the YA stuff I’m familiar with from The Hunger Games and brief plot summaries I get from my daughter), even though there could be so much more to it that Rapp ignores.
Let’s begin with the general idea. Rapp posits a world where everyone moves fast, which is of course a comment on our very own world, so that’s fine. At a few points he has characters rhapsodize about adverbs, which, if you’ve ever taken a fiction writing class, are considered superfluous and are the first to go when you’re editing (or so your teachers tell you). Your writing should be able to get across whether someone is doing something “mellifluously,” damn it, without you using the word! So Rapp has the characters love adverbs, which is pretty funny. Even long words are frowned upon in this society, and Angela’s parents, for instance, warn her that if her mind slows down to deal with long words, it leads to “floating,” which is idleness. There’s no time for idleness in this world! Angela’s teacher gives us a funny dichotomy between the real version of “Romeo and Juliet” and the new-and-improved version, as in Juliet’s soliloquy in Act IV, Scene III, when she takes four lines to get to the point, but which in the new version reads: “What if this friar is trying to poison me?” When Angela gets to the underground, she’s confronted with “sacred objects” such a a rocking chair and is encouraged to stare at a cow for minutes at a time, which thrills her. Rapp makes a clever point that the undergrounders don’t use contractions, because they don’t want to miss any word (obviously, as I just used two, I’m a bad rebel). All of this is a commentary on our speeded-up world, which is fine and probably a good point to make, but Rapp goes too far with it. In simplistic fiction, there has to be good and evil, so Rapp creates an actual government that enforces this kind of behavior. He doesn’t need to do this, because we’re speeding up voluntarily. We don’t need a government to enforce it, but what Rapp thinks we do need is something to rebel against. In a more complex book, there would be no government, just societal pressure on Angela. In our society, people can slow down if they want to, but they risk “missing out” on things (as someone who does not own a smartphone and really wishes he didn’t even own the crappy cell phone he does have, I “miss out” on stuff all the time), and that creates the pressure to keep up with everyone else. The “oppressive government” trope is standard in far too much fiction, and Rapp doesn’t do a very good job in explaining how any of it works and why Angela and the undergrounders pose such a threat to the regime anyway. So they want to slow down? So what? Rapp implies that there’s some “guarantee” waiting for those who toe the line, but he never explains what that is or why it’s important. So Angela’s rebellion turns into one of a petulant child who doesn’t know what to do with herself. A lot of YA fiction revolves around teens trying to find their place in the world, which is what all teens go through, but the presence of a straw man just externalizes their struggle and makes it a lot less complex and interesting. Angela falls in love with a girl. Couldn’t that be the focus instead of “slowing down”? Even in today’s world, having “deviant” romantic desires is still a stigma for far too many people. Angela’s romance with Gladys is the least dramatic thing in her life, when it feels like it should be more important. Gladys feels like a fling, rather than the first love of someone’s life. It’s all in service of the forced conflict with a government that feels fake.
Rapp never examines the darkness of the undergrounders, either. They’re definitely a cult, but they’re presented as nothing but noble. Angela is taken to a ruling council of three people, who will determine if she’s good enough to stay in their cave. They check their recruits’ heart rates, and if they’re too fast, they’re rejected (the mirror image of what’s happening to Angela’s grandfather, but Rapp never explores it). Yes, they remove chips, which is a good thing, but they also traffic in drugs which lower the heart rate artificially, and they have a weird quasi-religious ceremony toward the end of the book where they all take the pill. They’re never really presented as creepy, even though there’s a sinister undercurrent running through Angela’s entire sojourn with them, one that implies that if you don’t slow down, they’ll treat you as badly as the government will if you don’t speed up. This is a fascinating kernel of an idea, but Rapp does nothing with it. When they all take the pill, whatever might happen is interrupted by the government finding them and rousting them all, sending Angela back to her parents. Once again, the evil, cartoonish government takes the place of any meaningful examination of what happens when you try to reach extremes, no matter in which direction that extreme lies. It also leads to the very disturbing ending, which again, I don’t want to spoil, but seems to be Rapp endorsing surrender when you can’t get what you want the first time around. I know it’s not meant to be that – the final image of the book is supposed to be hopeful – but if you take the romantic imagery out of it, it becomes almost a paean to giving up. I don’t want to say more about it, but Rapp’s model for the ending, which is foreshadowed in the book, could not be more wrong-headed. It’s very frustrating.
It’s too bad, because Cavallaro has (if I’m remembering his older work accurately) roughened up his edges a bit, made his art a bit more angular, and embraced blacks to very good effect. Most of the book is in black and white, which is too bad because blue is such an important color in the book and it’s not present until a very crucial moment, when the coloring is, frankly, spectacular. Cavallaro does a terrific job with both environments in the book, turning the world into a crowded, fast-paced place and some of the pages into propaganda posters, a very nice touch, while in the underground, he gets to throw everything into deep shadows that feel “slower” simply because the cavernous spaces he creates are empty, allowing him to focus on every small movement the characters make. He gets to draw clutter, which speaks to inefficiency, and it’s a nice contrast to the cleanliness of the above-ground world. He gives us rickety fences, clanking machinery, and ramshackle stacks of books, and he gives us a lot of characters who share the same traits – “ramshackle” being the word we can most associate with every secondary character underground (Gladys, as the love interest, is more glamorous, even after living in darkness for months or years). Even Cavallaro’s hatching is sketchier underground, distinguishing it from the crisper lines of the above-ground world. The climax of the book, when the government comes into the caves and breaks everything up, is heart-wrenching, as Rapp uses no words but lets Cavallaro’s images imprint on our minds, as Angela watches the world she’s come to love come crashing down. Cavallaro isn’t too detailed with the characters, but he gets Angela’s frustration at the beginning of the book, her joy in the middle of the book, and her simmering rage at the end really well. She’s a girl who thought she knew what was going on but was violently disabused of that notion, and she can’t control herself much longer. Cavallaro tries to make the ending of the comic more comprehensible simply by the way he shows Angela after she returns to the world, but he can’t quite overcome the script.
I know I’ve bashed on this a bit, but it really does bug me because Rapp has a good idea and could say quite a bit about the society in which we live, but he chooses the easy way out. Decelerate Blue is a nice-looking book, and there’s a bunch of potential in it, and it upsets me that Rapp doesn’t go where it seems the story would work better. We’ve seen oppressive governments being oppressive and teenagers rebelling against them. We didn’t need another of those stories. The premise of Decelerate Blue lends itself to such a more interesting examination of its theme, and it would have been nice if this hadn’t been as simplistic as it turned out to be.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆