REVIEW: Fangirl the Graphic Novel, Volume 1

crop of the cover of fangirl for the featured image

Fangirl Vol. 1 by Rainbow Rowell, Sam Maggs, and Gabi Nam adapts Rainbow Rowell’s original novel  to a manga-inspired, black-and-white graphic novel for VIZ’s new imprint VIZ Originals. Like its source material, Fangirl Vol. 1 tells the story of Cath, a popular fanfiction author struggling with adjusting to her first semester at college, meeting new people, and growing apart from her twin sister.

Unlike the source material, the graphic novelization of Fangirl is a beautiful, contemplative, and fun reading experience.


Rainbow Rowell (author), Sam Maggs (adaptation writer), Gabi Nam (artist)
VIZ Originals
October 13, 2020

cover of Fangirl, depicting Cath in hoodie, sweatpants, and soft boots, holding mug and laptop.

When I saw this book existed, I screamed out loud and then begged for a review copy. I had read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell a few years ago and liked… some aspects of it, but mostly I was intensely curious how a novel that was so in its protagonist’s head and so heavily about writing could possibly be adapted to a visual medium in a way that communicated the same information.

Imagine my surprise when the graphic novel adaptation was more fun to read than the novel it’s based on.

Fangirl the prose novel was, well, wordy. It included a fake Wikipedia article about the Simon Snow series and excerpts from Cath’s fanfictions about said series. Maggs and Nam solve this by adapting the fanfic bits the same way they adapted the “real world” bits, setting the fiction-within-the-fiction off with black panel borders and using comic-only techniques like labeled images to add exposition. They also switched the narration from third-person to first-person, in keeping with the manga art style. This makes Cath feel more sympathetic and closer to the reader.

panels from the opening chapter of fangirl introducing Levi
The introduction scene somehow feels funnier in this adaptation than in the novel it’s based on.

I especially liked the insert pages that described “canon” and “fanon” Baz and Simon: the characters labeled with their attributes according to how the Simon Snow books portray them compared to how Cath portrays them in her fanfic. It’s a very concise way to convey that information. I also like how the boys Cath meets resemble Baz and Simon just enough to make you wonder if that’s part of their appeal.

This is Gabi Nam’s first published comics work in English, but she’s clearly an experienced draftsperson. The art is gorgeous. The characters are all rendered with a delicate, shojo-manga sparkly prettiness that I’m sure will appeal to fans of the source material and new readers alike. Where this prettiness falls flat is in comedy moments: the character art isn’t exaggerated enough to really make the jokes land. I also noticed a few sequences where the action read right-to-left despite the comic as a whole being left-to-right, which was a bit confusing, but otherwise it was very clear and easy to read.

panel from Fangirl showing Reagan rushing into Cath's room with dead eyes that are hilarious in a way I am not sure is intentional.
I don’t feel like this expression on Reagan’s face is the best expression for this moment.

Cath is a quiet character, but in a prose novel, the reader gets to hear a lot of her thoughts. Maggs and Nam cut out a significant amount of her internal monologue and instead let the visuals breathe. The most effective way to communicate quiet is by not having any words at all.

panels showing Cath and Wren in the first volume, their similarities and differences as identical twins.
Cath and her identical twin sister Wren.

I found myself sympathizing more with Cath reading this than when I read the prose novel. She looks so young and vulnerable! The careful shot choices help convey Cath’s feelings through images alone, and it’s great.

On the subject of intelligent adaptation decisions, it was a really smart choice to break this book up into four volumes. Fangirl is on the longer side for a prose novel, nearly 400 pages. At the same time, graphic novels require more space to deliver the same amount of information as prose. Four volumes of 200+ pages sounds like the perfect length for a faithful adaptation.

In general, I felt like this comic told the story of Cath’s first year of college in a more enjoyable way than the original prose novel. The adaptation didn’t fix the things I had issues with about the source material (who hands in fanfiction for a grade without changing the character names?), but it did use the source material and comic conventions to create a good comic, turning the straightforward and occasionally bland prose into shiny, soft art. I liked it! I look forward to reading the sequels, as well as anything else Gabi Nam might make in the future.