This week's book:

Good As Lily

ClarkKent_DC starts the discussion June 22 June 30

Hello, friends! After an unexpected delay, I'm ready to begin the discussion on Good As Lily. This is a young adult graphic novel published by DC in 2007 under its Minx imprint. The Minx line, established in 2006, was aimed at teenage female readers who were buying manga, but it didn't catch on, and DC pulled the plug on it in 2008. There was some thought that distribution was to blame, in that Random House didn't get the books into the same bookstores where those teenage female readers were buying manga, but that's water under the bridge now.

In any event, Good as Lily was written by Derek Kirk Kim, who won an Ignatz Award in 2003 and an Eisner Award in 2004 for his graphic novel Same Difference and Other Stories. Art is by Jesse Hamm.

Even though I'm hardly in the target audience for Minx books, I have read three of them (the others being Emiko Superstar and Token), and enjoyed them. Sometimes I need a break from the traditional Marvel and DC superhero fare, and they did well with these slice-of-life coming of age stories.

Good as Lily is a bit more than a coming of age story; it's kind of a science-fiction tale focused on one Grace Kwon, who is pictured on the cover. Which one is she? Ah, there's a tale worth telling ...

The story is told in three acts, so below, I will discuss Act One.

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Act One.

We begin with Grace Kwon waiting in that park for her friends to take her to the mall. She is surprised by BFF Rona and Jeremy, a childhood pal who is totally trapped in The Friend Zone™. Rona and Jeremy stage a mock kidnapping and bring Grace to another place in the park, where more friends have set up a birthday picnic!

Jeremy's gift is "the latest in back-scratch technology" -- a white T-shirt with a grid on the back, vertical squares marked A through J, horizontal squares marked 1 through 10. "Any time you need your back scratched, just put on the shirt and tell me where you want my fingernails," Jeremy tells Grace, inviting teasing from the others.

Rona's gift is commissioned from "the greatest artist in the land who shall remain anonymous except that her name is Megan Zhu" -- a caricature of Grace and the hot English and drama teacher Mr. Levon, as the ditty goes, "sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!" More teasing.

Brian, wielding a guitar, offers his gift, an original song (prompting all five of the others to think "NO!"), but he breaks a string ("OH, YES!") and then breaks a second string.

Grace gushes about having such good friends around and then tells her good news: She's been accepted to Stanford!

Spotting an ice cream vendor, Grace and Rona head over to buy some, musing about how there's only one semester left in their senior year of high school. Grace starts moping about not knowing her future and Rona gives her a pep talk.

They ask for the ice cream, but the vendor, a wizened old lady, insists on selling her a pinata, shaped like a pig. "How many times in your life were you swinging blindly? Never knowing if you were going to strike what you set out to hit? It's pretty frustrating, isn't it? Racked with disappointments? But as long as you keep swinging, you'll hit it eventually. And what a sweet reward when you finally crack it open, hm?" Grace answers, "Yeeeah. But sometimes I think it's a lot of work for some candy."

"Who said anything about candy?" the old lady asks.

"...sounds like candy to me..."Rhona says, shaking the pinata.

They buy it, and as they walk off, the old lady makes a point of telling Grace "Happy birthday."

Grace, blindfolded, has no luck with the pinata until she takes off the blindfold and gives it a mighty whack that causes its string to break -- and the head to fall onto hers! Rona notices that there's no candy inside.

At Grace's home, Rona and Jeremy note they need to prepare for the school play and take off. As Grace tells her parents about her gifts, she realizes she left Jeremy's T-shirt in the park! Going back to the tree where they tied the pinata, she doesn't find it, but instead encounters a crying, lost little girl, who only quiets down when she takes all of Grace's gum.

Then they hear splashing from a nearby lake -- "Mmph! I can't swim! *gasp* Heelp!" Grace runs down the dock to the woman and stops herself -- "I can't swim, either!" She tells the kid, now blowing bubbles, to get her a branch, but a wizened old lady comes running up, carrying a branch. "Hold on! Help is on the way! Help is ... *huff* *puff* Christ, I gotta stop smoking ..."

Grace grabs the branch and pulls the young woman out of the water. Shes grateful, but the old lady starts nagging the young woman about swimming at night, and the kid starts claiming she's hungry, and the young woman is arguing back and Grace yells "QUIET!"

Then the three look at the child and all say, "Wait ... you look awfully familiar ..."

"What's your name?" Grace asks the child.

"Grace Kwon."

"... and you two are?"

"Grace Kwon," says the old lady.

"Grace ... Kwon," says the young woman.

They're all startled, but confirm by asking each other "When's your birthday?" "Today," they all answer.

The old lady says it -- she's there with Grace as a child, Grace as a teenager ("You're ... me? I'm ... you?!") and Grace in her 30s ("29! I'm still 29, thank you very much!").

They're all in denial. "This has got to be a dream!!" Grace says.

"It has to be!" the young woman says, pointing at the old lady. "I can't possibly turn out looking like this!"

"Good grief ... you really are me at 29!"

"Can we go to McDonald's?" the child asks.

I only read a couple of the Minx books at the time, also. Not being the target demographic, I just picked up ones by creators I was already following: I read Re-Gifters because of Mike Carey & Marc Hempel; The New York Four because of Brian Wood & Ryan Kelly.

I like the way he introduced the time warp element into the story. It sort of happens by degrees, with no explanation of the cause. It's also interesting that not much is made of the Korean ethnicity of Grace and her high school friends (the only one who doesn't look Korean is Brian, he of the broken guitar strings). The story is about getting along in high school and deciding on what to do afterwards, not fitting in as a Korean. It's a marked contrast to  American Born Chinese (which we read a few weeks back), which was all about fitting in as a Chinese American.

I found Good as Lily after I read another work by Derek Kirk Kim, Same Difference (sample pages here). That one, he both wrote and drew.

Kim's stories are quasi-semi-autobiographical, and I think that's what makes his protagonists relatable. He is Korean, and his leads in Good as Lily and Same Difference are Korean, and that's part of who they are, but it's not an engine of conflict in his stories.

Act Two:

Grace and the older and younger Graces go home to figure out what to do. Grace's plan is that she'll distract her parents by asking them to go to the basement so she can show them a website, while the other three slip in the back door and go hide in her bedroom. But it doesn't go smoothly; there's a loud THUMP upstairs.

Grace rushes upstairs ahead of her parents to find that little girl Grace has spilled a whole package of cookies on the floor and is happily eating them. As she hustles her into the room and her parents notice the open kitchen door, old lady Grace sneaks up behind them and filches Dad's cigarettes! "I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!" Grace shouts, but soon backpedals as her parents are both baffled and now concerned that there's been a burglary. They search all the rooms in the house, but Grace "searches" her own room, with the trio hidden in the closet.

Once the coast is clear, the two older Graces marvel at being in their old bedroom. And our Grace asks them, what happened after the other old woman gave her the pinata at the birthday party

"I didn't have a pinata" the 29-year-old Grace says. "Yeah, what pinata?" says old lady Grace.

More to follow.

That scene with all of the Graces is like a Three Stooges movie. Nothing else that happens is nearly as zany (which would have made for a much different story). I just realized: that pinata is never explained! I guess I completely forgot about it.

The really big events in Act Two are still to come, so I'll wait until you get to them.

The comments by the two older Graces are the first inkling that they are there because something needed to change in Grace's future -- their pasts -- to make life better for them.

Continuing on with Act Two:

There's an establishing shot of the exterior of Westwood High School; inside, Grace and Jeremy are having a lover's quarrel -- "Just shut up and get out of here! I don't even want to look at you any more!" "That's just the problem! You never really look at me! Just through me!" ... when Jeremy forgets his next line.

The director, rookie English and drama teacher Mr. Levon, is encouraging, as this is only the first day of rehearsals. But he instructs Jeremy to play the scene as if his character "Dave" is secretly in love with Grace's character "Molly" (funny since Jeremy is secretly in love with Grace). Rona suggests Mr. Levon play the scene with Grace so she'll get it ... and Grace is the one who forgets the lines.

Mr. Levon is called away ... and the three other Graces show up! 

"What the hell are you doing here? I told you not to leave the house!"

"Hey, I tried to tell the 30-year-old here --"

"29, thank you very much!"

"-- but she wouldn't listen. She really wanted to see the ol' high school agai--"

"Gimme that!" Grace says, snatching the cigarette from Old Lady Grace's mouth. "You can't smoke in here!"

Six-year-old Grace is bored, but the other two marvel at seeing their old classmates again, and at how young they are. The 29-year-old is pleased to see the mural on the wall of the masks of Comedy and Tragedy that she painted with Megan and Mr. Levon. She giggles to herself at the schoolgirl crush she had on him, and begins to wonder where he is.

At that moment, Mr. Levon returns with bad news: The play is canceled. Why? Budget cuts. It was the play or the golf team, and the play lost.

Mr. Levon tries to calm down the angry group of students, but Grace can see he's pretty angry himself. And Grace 29 determinedly avers, "I can't let this happen again." As Grace insists she doesn't want to know her future -- and seeing the two older Graces doesn't make her feel good about it -- Grace 29 marches up to Mr. Levon and insists "You can't let this happen! You can't just give up on us! This is so unfair!" 

Warming up, she declares they can raise the money themselves, through car washes and bake sales and kissing booths and such. "Don't let this bureaucratic bull**** rob you of the experiences that are every person's right to have, not just the rich." Mr. Levon is won over, but has one question: "Who the hell are you?"

In a caption, Grace tells us she told Mr. Levon they are visiting relatives: cousin Katie, aunt Shana and grandmother Jessica. Back at home in her room, Grace tells the three she's going to dinner with her parents and will sneak them some food later. Little Grace whines that she wants to watch cartoons but Old Lady Grace insists, "Don't even think about it, you little booger. I can't smoke, I can't drink -- you ain't gonna take Antiques Streetshow away from me, too!"

At dinner, Grace tells her parents about the play being canceled, but rather than listening to her, they babble about why they don't have any Spam and that the play isn't as important as her calculus grades -- "You think they're going to look at your acting skills at Stanford?" and "You can star in as many plays as you want after you've made your first million as a lawyer, right?"

"But, I --"

"Speaking of plays, you guys remember when Lily was in that production of Snow White in first grade? Oh, she was so cute!" "She sure was ... And remember how that kid playing Dopey wet his pants and Lily said 'Ewwww' when he went to kiss her? Ha ha ha!" and soon her parents are lost in another reverie about Lily and don't even know Grace is there. 

So we finally find out what the title is about, but the first big "other Grace" moment happens at the end of this Act.

Also, Grace 29's remark about the cancellation of the play -- "I can't let this happen again" -- is the clearest sign that the older Graces are there to change Grace's past.

Continuing on with Act Two:

It's been a week and the three extra Graces are still around. As we look in on a carwash fundraiser in progress, narrator Grace tells us how hard it's been to hide her selves from her parents at night (in the day, Mom and Dad are at work at their convenience store). She can't keep Little Grace from always munching on snacks and Old Lady Grace from Dad's cigarettes and liquor cabinet. 

Grace 29 is bent on coming to the play rehearsals each day, and the other two always tag along. But Grace 29's motive is to moon over Mr. Levon.

"Geez, could you be any more blatant?" Grace complains to her. 

"I can't stop looking at him. ... God, I remember what a crush I had on him in back in high school, and here he is again. It's so unreal." Grace denies having a crush, but Grace 29 isn't fooled. "I'm you, remember! You can't lie to yourself,"  going on about how "young, talented, incredibly cute" Mr. Levon is. "Why wouldn't I -- er, you, uh, we have a crush? It's perfectly natural.

"God, I forgot how immature I was at 18 ... never even kissed a boy ... " Grace 29 laughs and Grace takes offense at being called immature. "Hey, if I can't call myself immature, to whom can I?", Grace 29 says. Then she turns pensive, warning Grace that good guys are "rarer than a Packers jersey at a Star Trek convention" and when you're young, you think another one will be right along -- and the look on her face says it isn't so. Grace firmly warns her that Mr. Levon is her teacher and they can't date; he'd be fired. Grace 29 asserts, "You're right. But he's not my teacher," and goes over to flirt with him.

Grace "accidentally" blasts "Shana" with the hose, but it helps "Shana": "Oh, no. My shirt. It's all wet. You can almost see right through it" prompting the gallant Mr. Levon to give her his own shirt.

Jeremy walks over to Old Lady Grace who at first carps but then, noticing it's him, starts beaming at him. "Jeremy, do me a favor, will ya? Go easy on the cholesterol." Then she pulls out a $20 bill and tells him "if you really want to do me a favor, get me a bottle of whiskey, wouldja. I'll even let you take a couple shots." Grace pulls her away, griping, "Hey, what's the matter with you? You shouldn't be smoking and drinking like this at your age!"

"Hngh! What better time is there? I've got nothing left ... " which really makes Grace wonder about her future.

Nona and Jeremy start to wonder about these relatives of Grace they've never met before ... and how odd it is that they all look just like her ... and how the "grandmother" doesn't have a Korean accent although Grace's father does ... and when Jeremy calls out to Grace all four of them go "What?"

And Jeremy and Nona notice "Shana" also has a crush on Mr. Levon. Grace denies it, but Jeremy says, "Can't blame Mr. Levon, I suppose. Your aunt is cute!"

Grace blushes. "You ... think she's cute, huh?"

"Hey, if I was Mr. Levon, I'd be all over that!" Jeremy answers. "I mean, don't tell her I said that or anything ... ha ha!"

"I had no idea ..."

But they come up short on the car wash, so the next project is a bake sale. Grace and then Grace 29 stop Little Grace from filching a cupcake, but Mr. Levon says it's okay, he can make more. Grace 29 says his girlfriend's lucky, and he admits they broke up a month ago.

Then Stephanie, the leader of the mean girls (there always has to be a leader of the mean girls, doesn't there?) struts up with two sycophants (what's a leader of mean girls without some sycophants?), offering fake congratulations to Grace for winning the part in the play over her. "You were sooo much better than me at the auditions. Besides, when the character description said she needed to be 'short and a little chubby,' I knew I didn't have much chance. Being cursed with these ridiculously long legs of mine. *sigh*"

This reminds Little Grace of past taunts from Stephanie -- "Here comes Grace! Grace the pig face! Grace the pig face!" "Ewww, Grace touched me! Now I'm infected with uglyitis!" "Fatty Fatty 4x4, can't get through the kitchen door!" -- and she gets so angry, she picks up a pie and clocks Stephanie right in the back of the head! Stephanie assumes it was Grace the 18-year-old, and fires back. Jeremy, defending Grace, tosses another pie, misses Stephanie, and hits a burly football player who then smashes a pie into his face! Nona fires a fusillade of cupcakes, and a full-scale food fight is on!

Little Grace is laughing ... and then crying as a furious Grace grabs her by the ear on the way home. "Do you know how grounded I'm gonna be when Mom and Dad find out I just had detention?" She keeps yelling at the tyke until Little Grace lets out a wail. "Stephanie always calls me names and makes fun of me! *sob* I hate her!

"I hate her." *sob*

Grace, soothingly, picks up Little Grace and carries her the rest of the way home. Little Grace remembers what she was doing the night she met Grace: Stephanie and pals were taunting her, so she bit Stephanie and pushed her off the jungle gym. Grace remembers that day -- her mother had to bring her home from school, and wouldn't listen to her.

"But mom, she called me names. She called me fat and -- "

In English, mom says, "Well, if you stop being so fat, maybe she don't calling you that!" Switching to Korean, she complains "Ai-goo! Why do you have to be like this? Why are you always getting into trouble? Why can't you be more like Lily?"

Little Grace remembers being spanked and punished and her mother on the phone with Gohmo ("grandmother"). "All she talked about was Lily. She's always talking about Lily and crying ... " Little Grace ran away to the park and got lost, and met Grace. The four of them quietly continue home, where Grace promises to get Little Grace some ice cream. She passes Lily's picture on the wall, and tells us Lily was her older sister, who died suddenly of spiral meningitis at age 8.

I think Little Grace adds an interesting and unusual wrinkle to the whole time travel conceit in the story. It's easy to see that the older Graces are there to change the past and thereby improve the future (at least, it starts to look that way pretty quickly). But Little Grace is from Grace's past, so that raises the stakes. When she accomplishes her mission, it should have a direct effect on Grace in the present.

It's a wonder Grace has turned out as well as she has, what with her parents comparing her to her dead sister every day since she was 6 years old -- and not realizing that she was grieving, too.

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