I may be making a pun on the title when I use the words “searing” and “raw” to describe Mike Curato’s fictionalized memoir Flamer, but both are apropos. The main character in this young adult graphic novel feels alone at the intersection of many forces arrayed against him: abusive and conservative parents, being closeted, weight-shaming, racial taunting, and puberty. And Flamer doesn’t pull any punches.
Mike Curato (writer, artist)
Godwin Books, Macmillan
September 1, 2020
Curato’s protagonist Aiden Navarro is spending the summer at Boy Scouts camp. In general, Aidan likes scouting. He likes the rules and the camaraderie, and that he is good at a lot of it. However, as Curato states in his afterword, “There were experiences I had during my time in the Boy Scouts that were very hard for a closeted kid,” and Flamer throws them all at Aidan at once.
Squee! ARCs for Flamer are here! https://t.co/rGjmQESK3E
— Mike Curato (@MikeCurato) March 18, 2020
Aidan’s communities have let him down. His home life is dominated by a father filled with rage. Aiden has stepped up to take on an adult role as his depressed mom’s confidant and his younger siblings’ de facto parent. The Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts both tell him it’s wrong to be gay, and his private school—where he is bullied with gay slurs, racist slurs, and slurs about his height and weight—has made it clear it’s wrong to be everything he is. He hopes that he might fade into the background at a public high school, and endure less bullying there.
At that transitional time between middle school and high school, Aidan is at Boy Scouts camp, in a constructed and liminal homosocial space. It seems designed for a kind of awakening, but for Aiden it’s not a positive one. As Aidan develops a crush on his roommate, his feelings of self-loathing multiply in response to the negative feedback and lack of support he gets from those around him.
In one of my favorite bits, we see the way Aidan strains, wanting to be wholly himself, wanting to follow all the rules, when he and another Scout discuss which of the X-Men is their favorite. The other Scout predictably likes Wolverine best, but Aidan’s favorite is Jean Grey. He explains her power and strength as Phoenix, continuing the prevalent theme of fire as life in Flamer, and he’s unwilling to pretend he likes Wolverine better.
The “searing” and “raw” qualities are in found Curato’s straightforward depiction of how teenage boys talk to each other, and his exploration of how terrible Aidan feels about himself and why. Aidan describes them as “pricks” on the same page where one of them asks him, “sucked any good dicks lately?” and many slurs appear relentlessly throughout the book. It’s easy to see why Aidan feels so beaten down. Discussions of masturbation and suicidal ideation are presented just as frankly.
After things come to a head, however, the ending of the book is hopeful. It presents Aidan as a kid who has more support and acceptance from his friends than he had previously believed, and while many things in his life are still imperfect and uncertain, he has some hope. This book doesn’t show the “it gets better” part of emerging from his closeted adolescence, but it does promise that is possible.
I knew Curato’s work from his Little Elliot picture books, which are charming, with muted colors and rounded shapes. His art for Flamer is in a different style but conveys his expertise. In Flamer, most of the illustrations are in greyscale, with some sketchy black and white bits, some washes, and some sweeping, intricate skyscapes.
When there is color in Flamer it is bright saturated red and yellow, usually showing fire and flames, extending the “flame” symbolism and imagery of the title as a throughline throughout the book. Other tiny splashes of red provide emphasis and focal points that link their depicted images to the flame theme.
Flamer feels like a gut punch sometimes, but it’s an artful gut punch. I suspect it will be that conscious and consistent use of the fire theme that will tip Flamer into classic status. I think it will join books like This One Summer and Hey, Kiddo in the ranks of difficult teen experiences, unflinchingly and dramatically depicted.