Do you remember Turbo Teen? Dave Roman and John Green clearly do, and thank goodness for it.
For those who didn’t watch a lot of cartoons in the mid- to late-80s, Turbo Teen was a short-lived Ruby-Spears production about a teenaged boy who could turn into a sports car. It was pretty awful: poorly animated and transparently aimed at cashing in on the popularity of Knight Rider. But as a young kid, all I saw was a teenager turning into a car and all the awesome potential that entailed. Much to their credit, Roman and Green have harnessed the exciting potential of that premise (only substituting a boat for a car) and ridden the goofy ebullient wave through an entire book without ever running aground on the corniness or logical impossibilities that lurk just beneath the water’s surface.
The book is composed of several stories of varied length, none of which move any overarching plot much, if at all (much like episodes of any given 80s half-hour action show). The main character is a teen who can turn into a boat, appropriately named Teen Boat. Early in each story, one character or another says his name and it pops up in awesome action cartoon title font. We never find out how Teen Boat came to be a teen boat, never meet the parents who gave him such a goofily-apt name, never really get much of anything explained. And it’s great. Any attempt to explore the psychological or technical underpinnings of such a premise would be a bust. Roman and Green are in it for the wacky plot points (Teen Boat falls in love with a talking gondola!) and goofy jokes (Teen Boat takes a driving test and the instructor starts things off by yelling, “Auto, boy! Roll out!”). The book’s tagline is “The angst of being a teen, the thrill of being a boat,” but the authors make the thrills plentiful and the angst pretty perfunctory.
The art is engaging and well-suited to the subject matter. Page layouts are clear and readable. Character designs are distinctive, interesting, and emotive. Most of the action scenes are fairly simple, but this lets them be quick and fun. Teen Boat’s transformation is fun in every repetition (just like those of Turbo Teen, the Transformers, or any number of other cartoon characters whose creators understood they could both pad length and create familiar rhythms by repeating something like a transformation or costume change).
Today’s teens are unlikely to care about the debt this book owes to 1980s television, but they’ll still have plenty to appreciate. This book may have started with the simple idea of “teen turns into boat,” but bright colors, good cartooning, and a giddy sense of humor keep it afloat.