Pete has always been a nerd. At his old school he was in the chess club, and he still has flashbacks about being tormented on the school bus. But after moving to South Haven, he hits a growth spurt and starts wearing contacts just in time to begin the school year. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, he’s good-looking. He falls in with the popular crowd, discovers a talent for tennis, and starts partying on the weekends. At the same time, he befriends Horst, a fellow comic book lover, and his gorgeous friend Laura. They introduce him to the South Haven Action Roleplaying Club (SHARC), a live-action roleplaying group where members can become their fantasy selves and participate in epic battles. He can’t resist joining.
To Pete’s dismay, his popular friends torment the SHARCs, and the SHARCs can’t stand anyone who would hang out with bullies. Pete soon starts lying to everyone to live a double life: he’s popular and well-liked at school, and in his spare time he’s reading comics and writing stories for SHARC. So what if he has to eat his lunch in the janitor’s closet so neither group will discover he’s friends with the other? After a lifetime of being picked on, he finally has the life he wants, as long as his lies are never found out.
Pete’s story of living a double life is a classic one, and the story beats will be comfortingly familiar even to the youngest readers of this graphic novel. However, the humor is similarly predictable and was often less charming than the story. There are some laugh-out-loud moments: I loved how Pete became the star of the tennis team and then, when asked where he’d learned how to play, was shown playing Mario Tennis. However, the authors made several jokes using dated stereotypes about marginalized groups that jarred me out of the story and soured an otherwise fun read.
Often, the problematic jokes were unnecessary one-liners that could have been left out without impacting the story. I was especially put off by Laura’s mother (a white woman) insisting that Laura call her by her first name because “Mom” is her “slave name.” Readers may be expected to find Laura’s mother ridiculous, but there is no context that would clarify that this line is satire. That kind of clarification is especially important for young readers who may be used to casual racism and won’t recognize the joke as inappropriate or unusual.
However, Jolley and deLoache are making some positive strides toward diversity. I was thrilled to see a multiracial protagonist like Pete, and Horst, who is gay, is the most fleshed out side character in the story. Still, LARP! is hard to recommend on the merits of its cast when readers can reach for excellent titles with diverse casts that don’t use problematic humor. Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks’ Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is one such title that will appeal to readers craving a nerds vs. jocks showdown.
Shoop’s artwork also makes positive strides toward diversity, and he has a bold aesthetic that complements the story’s drama. His characters are drawn with heavy black lines on simple backgrounds, emphasizing the movement and facial expressions of characters. The action scenes flow seamlessly from one panel to the next, and he draws a wide range of differently shaped bodies without any character ever feeling stiff.
While the publisher’s summary claims that LARP! is “for nerds and jocks alike,” I have a hard time pinning down its audience. The uncomplicated dialogue and predictable story seem to woo a younger crowd, but mature elements like underage drinking and sexual humor exclude tweens, and conservative communities may want to save the title for high school. Moreover, teens that identify as jocks won’t enjoy reading about stereotypical jock villains. At the same time, nerds will wish they knew more about Horst and Laura by the end of the story, and they will be dying for more detail about SHARC. Still, teens who won’t be bothered by the stereotypes and the prospect of waiting until the next volume to learn more about their favorite characters will find LARP! an entertaining read.
LARP! vol 1: To Geek or Not to Geek
by Dan Jolley and Shawn deLoache
Art by Marlin Shoop
Dark Horse, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 12+