03 October 2007

A Lunch Money Date

Yesterday I wrote about how Andrew Clements's Lunch Money uses comic books to explore the issue of commercialism in kids' lives; I posited that comic books' place in American culture makes them uniquely appropriate for that theme. Choosing comics as the field on which his characters maneuver lets Clements explore another theme as well.

Traditionally, American comics have been a gendered medium, with some titles published for girls and others--the greater part--for "fanboys." Now female readers drive the sale of "manga," but that simply reinforces the same divide. We even have imprints like Minx targeting just one sex.

Some categories of books display a similar gender divide, but that's a matter of content (sports, romance, trucks) or style (pink, which characters are on the cover) rather than format. (I'm not saying these divisions are firm, strictly enforced, or a good idea. But they exist.)

Lunch Money divides characters along that traditional gender line in portraying how they think about comics as they enter the story. The fans include:

  • Greg's father, a comic-book collector
  • Greg himself, who occasionally buys comics as investments and draws his own, also to make money
  • Ted and Roy, Greg's customers in the sixth grade
  • Mr. Z, the math teacher
The characters who start out cool or hostile to comics are:
  • Maura, Greg's across-the-street neighbor and rival since kindergarten. After she's drawn a picture book, Maura tells Greg, "I know you said mine isn't a comic book, but I don't really get what that means. Prob'ly because I haven't looked at comics books much. Tommy has some, but I never got into reading them."
  • Principal Davenport, who tells Greg: "This is a comic book, and in my view, comic books are practically toys, and bad toys at that. This is hardly what I would call a book."
The gender divide is mighty clear, isn't it?

Lunch Money can thus be not just a story about money, but also a story of crossing that gender gap, with comics as the bridge. Maura reads McCloud's Understanding Comics, and starts drawing her own comic books. They're still about unicorns and princesses, but they use the hitherto male language of panels, speech balloons, and sound effects. And eventually the school principal admits she's "read comic books for the first time in my life."

We also see another bridge between the sexes getting built. ***SPOILER*** Near the end of the book Clements drops the news that Greg and Maura have made "one awkward attempt at holding hands." And all because of comic books.


fairrosa said...

In his newest offering, "No Talking," Clements makes this "gender divide" and then final "harmonious existence" the central point of the story.

And, in "Just Grace" by Charise Mericle Harper, Grace "secretly does something boyish": she draws comic strips, but not featuring unicorns or princesses. Her theme is a "male" one -- superheroes, although there is a feminine touch of how these heroes are not only empathetic characters but their skills are modest ones. I find this book incredibly satisfying and that Grace's taking solace in drawing comics refreshing.

J. L. Bell said...

And here's a look at Just Grace, published in April.