Escape from "Special"
by Miss Lasko-Gross (Fantagraphics, 2006)

Artist and writer Melissa Lasko-Gross takes an unvarnished look back in this collection of wry, poignant semi-autobiographical sketches based on life in grade school. This debut graphic novel is perceptive and unstinting in its unsentimental look at childhood and early adolescence. It's also morbidly funny, dark and twisted. It is about as far from idealized and romanticized as a writer can get, which is what sets this eloquent and touching story apart from the rest.

Escape from "Special" is assembled as a series of vignettes that closely resembles the style of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. Each vignette runs to maybe seven pages at the most, with some, just like Pekar's short stories, taking up only one page. And, like Pekar, each "short" packs a gut punch. The stories are centered around the sense of dislocation Lasko-Gross felt growing up. In fact, many of the stories are about her simply sitting, wondering what on earth she has to do to fit in. Growing up is a real challenge when you're awkward and don't fit in with any group.

At first, she has trouble learning at school, having been home-schooled for years. Then, when she starts to surpass her schoolmates, she is rejected for being too smart. It's a catch-22 for Melissa, who can't figure out the social patterns enough to get any kind of foothold. Her need to fit in is counterbalanced evenly with her disdain for those who control the pecking order. She wants to be herself without being punished for it, but any kid who is wiser and more conscientious than the others will always be punished for being that way. It's hard not to wince at the mistakes she makes, some out of sheer ignorance, some out of the kind of carelessness that comes from being exhausted from being teased into distraction.

Melissa's parents bounce her from school to school, which only confuses her further and is certainly no help in the development of social skills, of which she has very few. Opinionated but full of self doubt, imaginative and emotional, she's on her own, she knows it, and she doesn't know how to get out. At one point, after being placed in the "special" class, also known as the "retarded kids" class, she does something that shows how smart she is and is instantly ridiculed for it. She can't get anything right.

Lasko-Gross has a real feel for the incredible claustrophobia of grade school. If high school is a slaughterhouse then this is the train ride that takes you there.

What's missing is any sort of clear picture about her family. They seem to be hippyish musicians but are lacking in detail, so it's hard to understand what sort of people they really are. Melissa's life is mostly about her and her many social battles.

The art is really something special, pun intended. Black-and-white monochrome drawings, done at first in a childlike way, then with much greater detail later on (as she matures as an artist and a person), and washed out with dark blues and grays. I like the way Lasko-Gross puts messages in the backgrounds. "No way out" appears written in the highly detailed background when she's in an impossible situation, and other such visual cues appear at crucial moments. Her lines are clean and expressive, showing a strong influence from the Crumb approach to twisted, bloated body shapes and grimacing facial expressions.

Escape from "Special" is a portrait of an actual, lived life, set down as it happened. It's as urgent as it is unnerving. Lasko-Gross pulls off a great feat: she makes you feel less like you're reading it and more like you're living it right along with her.

review by
Mary Harvey

31 October 2009

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