If there’s one good thing about graphic novels achieving greater visibility on bookstore and library shelves, it’s the fact that small, independent projects that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day get a chance to shine. A perfect case in point would be Strugglers by Tim Fish. This slice-of-life comic tells a simple story about three recent college grads thrown together as roommates in the nineties.
First off, there’s Tighe, who came to St. Louis from the east coast literally by choosing it with a dart on the map. He’s new to the St. Louis hipster scene of his two roommates, the ambitious Tracey, and Amber, who is more of a slacker. Strugglers follows their lives through the period of about a year, as each goes through his or her own version of growing up. Amber and Tracy both join bands and have a friendly competition as to whose will be more successful, while Tighe wrestles with his growing attraction to their neighbor, a college senior frat boy named Mike.
To be honest, the story doesn’t get deeper than that and Strugglers could be viewed as more of a character study. Fish puts realistic dialogue in his characters’ mouths and lets the drama and conflict arise from who they are as people. Many times it’s the supporting characters, like the somewhat shallow groupie girl Tuesday or Tracey’s domineering mother, that help drive the story forward, making key observations that the help the main characters react or decide what to do next. But as a whole, the story develops organically and nothing feels forced. Slice-of-life it definitely is, as the reader will get the feeling that they are peeking in on a very specific time and place.
While the competition aspect between Tracey and Amber twists and turns, Strugglers really seems to be Tighe’s story as he slowly comes to the realization that he is gay. It would have been easy to have this situation descend into near-melodramatic deep soul-searching, but Fish chooses an alternate manner, cleverly mixing in captioned lyric parodies of familiar songs to convey Tighe’s emotional state at a given moment. The result is a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of Tighe’s character that is not at all heavy-handed, but more true to life.
Reading from the author’s afterword, the art and story evolved over a period of roughly ten years, appearing in different lengths and formats. Unfortunately, this sometimes shows page to page. Fish’s black and white drawings have a loose inking style, and his figure work shows many influences. At times it is slightly manga-inspired and at other times seems to take framing devices and camera angles from traditional American superhero comics. The end result is slightly uneven and some pages show a bit more polish than others, as Fish’s style obviously developed through the years. The newer pages definitely deepen the story and highlight scenes that pack a more emotional punch, but it can be slightly jarring when you turn a page and are confronted with the heavier line and less figure detail of the older work.
Strugglers may have a hard time finding the right audience, as it is almost purposely not flashy or attention-grabbing. But that is also some of its charm, telling a simple story without all the bells and whistles. There is absolutely no worrying sexual content or even any curse words, so it could live comfortably on the Young Adult shelves, though due to the subject matter, libraries in conservative communities may wish to add it to their Adult collection. Wherever it is shelved, it is a good example of how a more humble independent work deserves a spot alongside all the big publishing offerings.