Cathy G. Johnson (Writer and artist) and Kevin Czap (Colorist)
Faith just started middle school, and on her very first day, she joined the soccer team—but not because she’s a confident go-getter. She maybe did it because Amanda, the pretty upperclassman who handed her the clipboard, is really cool and promised they’d hang out. Faith’s dad warned her popularity isn’t everything, but that’s not what she’s looking for. Honestly, Faith can’t tell you exactly what she’s looking for—yet.
Most of the Bloodhounds on the lackluster C Team have similar stories. Marie and Sodacan are best friends so they’re on the team together, but they might want to be doing different things that don’t involve hanging out with each other, and that’s scary to admit. Warthog and Bulldog, the pretty eighth graders with matching side ponytails, are absolutely inseparable and definitely won’t let a boy get between them. Jalissa and Huong are pretty focused on improving their skills, but Huong’s dad is the coach, and she’s not ready to admit her intense dad is kind of crap at his job. Each kid in The Breakaways—Zoe, the quiet midfielder, Yarelis, the frustrated goalie, V, an angry fifth grader, Sammy, a joyful jokester, and Nadia, the serious pinch-hitter—feels a bit lost and needs loyal, understanding friends.
Faith is the story’s protagonist, but each Bloodhound steals the focus at various intervals. Johnson allots time to the kids on about a 60/40 ratio; Faith owns 60 percent of the comic, but the story frequently segues away from her plotline to let the other players reveal their own personal struggles. This structure brilliantly captures the experience of feeling lost in a chaotic middle school experience. Moments of connection and understanding can easily get lost amongst relationship shenanigans, piles of homework, or exhausting soccer practices, and actually making valuable connections takes real work.
Faith copes with feeling lost in this sea of middle school drama by escaping into a rich fantasy world, both through her art and in her dreams. At night, she follows Mathilda, a medieval messenger who travels between kingdoms carrying news. Mathilda is the guide Faith, and really everyone, needs in real life: a mentor who understands Faith’s feelings and needs before she can even properly express them. As she travels from King Breaker to Queen Blue, Mathilda encourages Faith to open herself to new things and to actively support those around her. However, this guidance is frustrating for Faith to accept. The messenger doesn’t offer clear or obvious answers, and Faith has to find ways to help her teammates on her own.
The middle schoolers’ real, daily life is filled with cruelty, although it’s often unintentional. As they try to cope with their complicated feelings, the Bloodhounds hurt each other. Unable to explain feelings of jealousy and fear of loss, Marie and Sodacan’s friendship breaks down. Marie gets lost in her relationship with Sammy, and doesn’t seek out Sodacan—which is pretty fair since Sodacan was being kind of a crap friend. Many of the kids draw into themselves when their family lives become difficult, like Yarelis, whose mother forces her to stay on the team despite her obvious discomfort in the goalie box. However, some are able to open up—like Sammy, who articulates his trans identity to Marie, or Zoe, who responds to Faith’s awkward kindness with her own awkward offerings of friendship. The comic is brightest when the team finds ways to open up to each other, and young readers who see themselves in these queer, trans, and misfit sweeties will be heartened to watch them find ways out of the chaotic darkness of adolescence.
Johnson’s characters are a variety of body types, races, skin tones, and sexualities—although, appropriately, some of these identities are in flux. Johnson uses hairstyles in particular to communicate the Bloodhounds’ personalities as well as shifts in their understanding of themselves. Sodacan, who is starting a very riot grrrl-esque punk band, has a mostly shaved head with a floppy tuft left on top. Warthog and Bulldog have the kind of side ponytail you’d expect paired-up mean girls to have, and in a key moment when their friendship breaks down, Warthog pulls the hair tie out of her hair. Later, she wears a stiffer, middle-of-the-head ponytail—just like her new best friend, Huong. Many of the kids are a bit scraggly and untamed; they have messy hair, freckles and acne, and they wear weird chunky necklaces and big hoodies. Each has a unique style, but none wear out-of-the-box, overly adult clothing. They look and feel like real middle schoolers.
Conveying emotion visually is key with characters who don’t yet know how to express themselves, and Johnson does so expertly through facial expressions and body language. How the kids stand, sit, slouch, and do or don’t look their friends in the eye speaks loud volumes about what they’re truly feeling. Kevin Czap’s colors boost the emotional moments of the comic, especially when it segues between night and day. Many of the nighttime or dream sequences use unique color palettes featuring cooler, darker golds or greens, and firelight and moonlight make these special, less stressful moments feel magical.
In contrast, there are several distinct moments with a clear middle school vibe—like a scene in which Faith and Zoe talk on the floor of the girl’s bathroom at school, which has bizarre pink tile, or when Jennifer (Warthog) escapes the noise of her home and unwanted flirting from a boy by diving into the music on her purple iPod, causing the panels to take on an almost entirely purple palette. Faith’s fantasy world is also richly detailed. Her imagination is evident in the careful decorations on castle walls and the cool medieval fashions her characters wear, and she fashions herself older black women role models in Mathilda and the Queen.
Despite being filled with tumultuous feelings, The Breakaways is a very sweet and heartwarming comic. Johnson, who is also an educator, has a strong understanding of the middle schooler mindset regarding identity—whether it’s sexual identity, gender identity, or finding a sense of self within a subculture, like a riot grrrl style band or a soccer team. This comic cuts to the core of what the middle-grade audience is feeling, and lets them know that it’s all right. The adults may all suck, but there are other young teens who are ready to start building supportive friendships and help them process and grow. Get a copy for your middle schooler from your local bookstore, or from the library like I did!