The Cute Girl Network
MK Reed and G. Means, Joe Flood
The Cute Girl Network is not a title that clearly flags a target market. It could be for pre-teen girls. It could be for teen boys, maybe? It could be for teenage girls for sure, or less than respectful young adult men. It could be for anyone with any investment in the term “cute girls”, which really, sort of grossly, is everyone. But good news! Hurray! The Cute Girl Network is for people who like soft-grunge, early-mid-twenties, “how do I be a person” romance. I’d feel like a hack comparing it to Scott Pilgrim, but the main character makes a quip about hating rollerblades (hiss) and then being half-ninja within fourteen pages. So we’ll roll with it. Ho ho, because of skateboards! She’s a skater.
My dad likes to tease me by telling people I always read the end of books first. He thinks that’s rude, that if I do that (I used to do that. I was an impatient teen) I’m robbing myself and the story. Nowadays it’s not often true– sometimes I’ll look, if the formula is so apparent that the urge to check my work against the official answer is unbearable, and sometimes I’ll yearn to check the ending, because I so badly want things to turn out well. This book is of the latter school. I want you to read it. I want it to be popular, and for people to give it to friends for their birthdays.
The book is about a girl (woman?) who meets a boy (man?), and their connection is so uncomplicated. Their romantic gestures uncontrived. A sweetness of natural sugars; no E numbers, or whatever! Healthy, you know? Good for the body. He brings her flowers that turn out to be weeds; she plucks the petals and showers them both with floral confetti. Dreamy. I wanted to let it unfold, but I wanted to be reassured this couple would “make it”–help, help! Because their romance, while unhurried, is not smooth. This is the crux of the debate: if you read the end, do you disrespect the formatting? Do you spoil the gift? I wanted to honour the efforts of the creators. So I kept on going, page by page, and I did not regret it. This book is a lovely, natural slow burn. I learnt from Kat Asharya’s 6 x style zine that lovely can mean “of a great moral or spiritual beauty”–perhaps that’s a grand way of putting things, but the love story, the tolerance story, the gentle stand-your-ground search (oxymoronic, but humour me) for romantic truth that Jack and Jane are on… Well, it was just a treat.
I was taken aback, I gotta say, at the black and white on the first page. I eased into it, I didn’t miss the colour by the end, and I don’t know why I expected brights. The digital preview I read doesn’t even have the printed publication’s coloured cover. I think it was just a visual shock– there’s nice use of thick black brushwork and environmental texture, but Joe Flood’s art doesn’t include greyscale, or any hatched shading. You dive straight into this kinetic skater wipeout scene, with no softening tones, no cushioning colour. THAK! WHAM! Ow! My Coccyx!
That’s how we meet the protagonist of The Cute Girl Network: Jane, skater, new in town, unafraid of hitting bumps in the road (~~DOUBLE MEANING~~). And love interest/social sticking point Jack: soup cart tender, face as long as Dawson Leery, vocabulary much smaller. Cannot identify a coccyx; notorious for romantic ineptitude. He’s into her immediately–why wouldn’t he be–and she is receptive. That’s basically the purest description possible, thank you Oxford Dictionary: “willing to consider or accept new suggestions and ideas/able to receive signals or stimuli” (I am all about definitions today! I feel I owe this book clarity. I’ll break out the thesaurus in a few lines). TCGN contains the best rendition of “girl who’s totally OK with being found attractive by puppyish, food-providing, messy-haired dude” that I can think of. She is completely at home with this development and she’s down with seeing what happens next. I’m struggling to illustrate her cathartic lack of… fervour, intensity, vehemence, avidity? She does not over-identify with this moment of “a cute boy liked me”. There’s no obsessing, no rush to ensure his interest won’t waver. She just enjoys it and continues to be herself. That’s a rare balance in fiction, I think.
Flood’s brushwork and anatomy is real nice, though. And get this–everybody has their own face! Own face, own body, own wardrobe. Character models, man. I love ’em. Perhaps it’s a wild impression but I’d say the linework is at its least innately beautiful on Jane’s face. The fine soft lines that are either Jack’s cheekbones or his eye bags–none on her. Not to say she’s unattractive, and she’s hella charming, but she is palpably NOT drawn to conform to hotness. She’s an active participant in her story and her world; she’s on-panel almost all the time, but I’m subconsciously reassured that she’s not there to be gawked at. That’s a clever trick to pull! Even when she’s naked. They do get naked, at one point. Make a study of this book, maybe, if you don’t know how to draw a figure with breasts that doesn’t become breasts with a figure.
Now. I never thought I’d say this, but. There’s a really good Twilight parody in this book.
No! Unjudge! Look, just read these panels.
But this excellent deadpan fauxfic language is not what really sells it. It’s the four-page, kitchen table discussion which Jane and her housemates have about totally-not-Twilight, right after reading aloud that little excerpt. A completely earnest discussion, of various nuances, about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s helpful and what’s a hindrance, re: teen girls + Twilight. It doesn’t matter that we know what they’re “actually” talking about, the no-sell in-universe parody, because the conversation covers things which real, thoughtful, feminist women say about Twilight. I have had this conversation. They take the subject seriously, they take each other seriously, and they take teenage readers of (not-)Twilight seriously! They laugh a whole lot and make jokes! Dang, that’s some goodwill earnt. Everybody’s dialogue glances off everybody else’s; they talk past each other a little in their eagerness to make their own point. It’s so good. It’s so real! Reality without vocal tics. Nice.
Every time I go back in to check a reference for this thing, I see something else I want to tell you about. Fart jokes from girl characters. An original/endearing “sexy nosebleed” moment. The great, slow body language between prospective lovers that slinks in behind dialogue that’s pretending to only be palling around–watch how they begin to hold hands, who initiates it, how they break apart, when they come back together. Women who wear loose clothing talking about sex in cars while they help each other out at work. A feminist perspective that endorses feminist progress, whilst acknowledging women’s individualism and occasional incompatibility. Problems introduced and supported for long enough that they can be acknowledged, solved or sidestepped, but not kept afloat for so long that they drag.
I won’t tell you what the titular Network actually is. I won’t tell you if Jack and Jane get married and have ten kids. I will tell you I was completely, happily charmed by the book, and I would like another one. If you like straightforward, sexual, non-commodified hetero romance, feminist social interaction, lady skaters, and self-determination, then lucky you! You haven’t read this yet. But you should. It comes out in November.