Life’s a Beach
In a girl-centric graphic novel, growing up is hard to do
It’s 1987 in Miami Beach, and Shira Spektor is sitting on the couch, hugging her knees. “I’m going to be 16 in a month and two weeks and I’ve never even been kissed,” she tells her best friend, a spunky septuagenarian named Minerva. In fact, Shira has been kissed, sort of: Benny Friedmeyer tried to kiss her at his bar mitzvah party, but was so nervous he wound up pushing her into a chopped liver sculpture of the Taj Majal.
In many ways Shira’s story is a typical one of adolescent anxiety: she’s looking for love, fighting with her overbearing lawyer father, doing battle with snooty girls in her class. “I combine various forms of uncoolness,” Shira confesses, echoing so many beloved literary characters who never quite fit in. “Still,” she continues, “you wouldn’t think [sucking at sports] would matter so much at a Jewish high school.”
Token, written by Alisa Kwitney and illustrated by Jöelle Jones, is the final book published as part of D.C. Comics’ Minx line, which launched auspiciously in 2007, aiming to capture the teenage girl market with pithy, stylish graphic novels that were a clever hybrid of Young Adult fiction and comic books. This fall D.C. announced the line’s cancellation, in part because the genre-bending that made the books attractive also made them difficult to place in YA sections of major bookstores. Still, Minx titles were generally well reviewed, boasting feisty heroines involved in various levels of adventure (competing in a martial arts competition, joining up with a group of artistic renegades, heading out on a road trip) while navigating the troubled waters of adolescence, where there were plenty of crushes, parents, friends, and insecurities to contend with. With snappy dialogue and striking black and white illustrations, the graphic novel format made these standard tropes feel fresh. It also proved friendly to characters with a specific ethnic or cultural identity, those outside what Kwitney calls the “default, mainstream Christianized culture.”
In Token, much of Shira’s angst plays out in the context of her Jewishness, most dramatically as her father starts dating his non-Jewish secretary, Linda, and Shira herself gets involved with a Spanish guy named Rafael. The whole book is riddled with Jewish cultural shorthand. “Remember when we took that trip with Elderhostel?” Shira’s grandmother asks Minerva. “You couldn’t stop kvetching about being constipated!” Sitting on the beach, the two discuss whether the pastrami they’ve brought with them is spoiled, and—doing the stereotypical Jewish grandmother thing—note approvingly that the bathing suit-clad Shira has “a very nice shape. Very voluptuous.” The saleslady at Woolworth’s calls Shira “Maideleh.”
In visually representing these characters, Kwitney told me she was definitely not looking for “the Betty and Veronica thing, where they have the same body, but different hair.” The Shira she envisioned, and who Jones brought to life, is “large-breasted and short-waisted…she [did] not have legs up to her armpits.” Madison and Mallory, Shira’s bitchy classmates-cum-adversaries, are rendered more like classic, idealized comic book women: tall, with pouty lips and luxurious hair. Here, Shira’s specificity is directly tied to her Jewishness; it’s a way to make sure she stands out, both physically and otherwise.
One night, trying hard to ingratiate herself, Linda prepares a special dinner for Shira and her father, Alan: chicken parmigiano. Shira bluntly informs her that cheese on top of meat is not kosher. “But the chicken is kosher,” Linda objects. “It said so on the package. I thought it was red meat that couldn’t be cooked with cheese.” She looks defeated. “I called up my old friend Naomi Hyman from high school! Naomi said it was just the red meat.” Alan steps in to reassure her, and says they’ll eat what she has cooked: “Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little.” Incredulous, Shira refuses, stirring up fury in her father. “You’ve eaten milk and meat together before,” he accuses. Hand on her hip, Shira returns fire. “I ate a pepperoni pizza once, four years ago. When I was 12. Since you’re sending me to a Jewish school, it seems to me that eating milk and meat together would be completely hypocritical.”
Shira wields her adherence to kosher laws as her own brand of rebellion, claiming the moral high ground for herself in the face of her father’s sudden ambivalence. But while she may have won this battle on principle, that’s not really the point. “I don’t really care that much about keeping kosher,” she reflects soon after the dinner incident. “But my dad always cared. And now he’s changing all the rules.” As if to reinforce it all, for Shira’s 16th birthday, her father gives her a Star of David pendant, the same night he presents Linda with an impressive engagement ring.
Even as she’s holding tight to this particular principle, Shira’s breaking some other rules by shoplifting and hanging out with Rafael. Both come with an intoxicating sense of risk, but what really draws Shira to Rafael is an equally classic aphrodisiac: his difference from her. One day on the beach, they talk about different ways to mark becoming an adult. Sixteenth birthdays aren’t a big deal in Ibiza, Rafael says, but at 15, you have a Quinceañera, which is “supposed to mark the end of childhood.” Hearing this, Shira perks up: “Like a bat mitzvah.” Rafael is confused. “That’s the big Jewish coming-of-age party,” she explains. “Although mine wasn’t really big. Or even much of a party. I just memorized a lot of prayers in Hebrew.” Rafael looks surprised and seems to begin to say he didn’t realize she was Jewish. But instead he changes the subject, and they make out in the surf.
Token’s 150 pages seem like scant space to develop a story of much depth or nuance, and it’s true that the plot’s various threads are tied up a bit too hastily. But in exchanges like these, Kwitney leaves her characters appealingly exposed, exploring complicated, bittersweet emotions with real sensitivity. There’s plenty of room for more stories that share this approach, and it’s a shame that Minx—the line of books designed to encourage this kind of storytelling—didn’t quite take off.