For a ragtag group of teenagers, the dodgeball court is a welcome haven from the chaos of life’s twists and turns. In the words of a standout dodgeball player, “We all have a lot going on in our lives, but this is the ONE PLACE we don’t have to worry about it.” Whether grappling with relationship woes, family crises or rubber balls hurled at high velocity, the characters within Dodge City have their hands full in this new release from writer Josh Trujillo and illustrator Cara McGee.
The story centers on Tomás, the new kid in town who feels isolated and a bit lost. Hoping dodgeball will help change things around (the city is named Dodge, after all), he joins a local team down a few players. As the newest addition to the Jazz Pandas, Tomás is clearly out of his league as he struggles to fit in, learn the rules, and master the game. And he doesn’t have much time. A big tournament looms large, and the JPs have much to prove after a scandalous past season leaves them with a burnt reputation. Throughout this underdog story, readers should enjoy watching the characters grow both on and off the court, gaining confidence and building relationships, with plenty of dodgeball action to keep the story moving
Right from the get-go, intensity is high as readers meet the characters already in the heat of competition. This provides a quick introduction to the team’s unique personalities, a clever technique used by Trujillo to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. He also uses the opening scene to set the tone—a combination of cutthroat competition interlaced with subtle humor. Who can’t help but snicker a little at a close-up shot of a muscular derriere accompanied by the text bubble: ‘Head Shot!’? This humor is the perfect counterpoint to the intense storyline, allowing readers a chance to breathe, or at least laugh a little.
Throughout, text and image work in tandem to tell the story. Angular lines, expressive facial features and a warm, vivid color palette reflect the excitement and energy of battles both private and public. Cooler colors then work seamlessly to offset flashbacks and highlight emotional strife, while the panels’ mixture of panoramas and close-ups respectively provide context and draw the reader in further. Carefully arranged montages also capture the action of the game, with a series of blocks, passes and direct hits an effective way to show readers, many of whom may be new to the game, what is happening as it unfolds. The text parallels this fast pace through quick dialogue and plenty of expressive “pows,” “whams,” and “rahrrs.” Dodgeball clearly is a sensorial game with visual, auditory and tactile elements that cannot be conveyed through text or image alone.
In fact, the book is at its best when it uses equal parts text and image to tell the story. For example, dialogue bubbles in Spanish, sans translation, form a visual connection via language between Tomás and Abril, a dodgeball player from the team’s arch rivals. After drama happens on the court, Trujillo once again uses language to convey the subsequent change in their relationship—Tomás still speaks to Abril in Spanish, but she chooses English. The bond is broken. Blue color tones accentuate this cooling in the relationship, especially in comparison to the otherwise vibrant hues that dominate most pages.
Thematically, language plays an important role in establishing the harmonious vibe that permeates the Jazz Panther team. The diverse group of characters accept each other unquestioningly and wholeheartedly. For teammate Huck, who often feels isolated because he is deaf, being part of the team means finally finding a place to belong, aided in large part by Tomás’ efforts to incorporate sign language into everyday communication. In this case, and whenever personal differences come into play, Trujillo does not try to champion a cause or create idealized characters—people come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and sexual orientations, and that’s that.
And while the cast is eclectic, I would be willing to bet that most teens will identify with the almost universal problems associated with growing up. The transitional years can be a bumpy ride, and the characters face a range of challenges from finding oneself to figuring out relationships to dealing with difficult family situations. This translates into very relatable problems, like Tomás’ fear of being uninteresting and simply not good enough. Admittedly, dodgeball may not be the answer for everyone, but Trujillo makes it accessible. Readers can learn or brush up on the game right alongside the main character, a dodgeball novice who learns as he goes.
Many teens also will appreciate the book’s tech angle, with characters as active in the digital world as they are on the court. Whether exchanging texts, viewing memes or using apps, mobile devices are a key mode of communication, especially for Huck, who benefits from the additional pathways available for connecting with his teammates. On the other hand, the consequences can sometimes be dire, including the overwhelming pressure created by voyeuristic virtual audiences with an appetite for critical commentary, video sharing and picture posting.
Dodge City does leave a few conflicts unresolved, but I am guessing this first installment in a series is setting the stage for further development in later issues. Overall, it’s a satisfying, fun and fast-paced read that should appeal to many teen readers in the middle and high school grades. The game’s ups and downs parallel the more personal struggles of everyday life, and the take home message is a good one. While you might not win each and every game, through teamwork, communication and some grit, you might just grow a little stronger, a little wiser. Future competitors beware.
Art by Cara McGee
Boom! Studios, 2018
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18)