This is a departure for Gennis, who is most visible with her wonderful non-fiction works usually centering on the macabre, as well as some humor work, and a grim one at that. It’s a narrative, sure, but it’s also a visual poem that never spells everything out for the reader, darting between a contemplative car ride through a rural area and an earlier, fiery relationship that appears masked in trouble and headed towards something very bad.
On her website Gennis has explained the origin of this work, but I wouldn’t suggest reading the background she gives until you’ve read the actual work. There’s a rawness you don’t want to softness as Gennis throws you not in the middle of explosive emotions, but at a faraway vantage point where those are poking at a more settled brain years away. That’s a much harder thing to portray, but Gennis applies the same efficiency found in one of her orderly non-fiction stories to this, in such a way that it expertly seizes the emotional framework of the car ride in the present day. This is now, but because Gennis is so adept at portraying that, the stabs from the past are sudden and stark, and cut to the emotional underbelly of an unassuming driver moving through an ever-living world.
Newlevant has addressed life as a home schooler in her work before. No Ivy League, the first part of a longer work, looks to expand her examination of that circumstance, capturing the typical alienation of the teen years fueled by an actual physical and sometimes ideological separation from the rest of the world, and the extra strides expected of a kid to find their place in that wider world.
In calm and casual style, we find 17-year-old Newlevant looking for a job. At the suggestion of her parents, she becomes part of a program to control invasive ivy plants from overtaking the native trees of the area. Newlevant meets a multi-cultural crew of peers that she attempts to bond with during work. It’s not a disaster, but she’s much more drawn to the older team leader, Tono, a friendly Chilean guy with whom she shares a rapport and a passion for ‘80s and ‘90s hip hop.
It appears that up until that point, a lot of her social interaction has been with other homeschoolers — indeed, one fellow worker proclaims that Newlevant having another homeschooler as a boyfriend is “cute” — and that makes the symbolic placement of the ivy so interesting. The ivy is, quite literally, an unknown outside presence that engulfs a tree, wrapping itself around the tree, smothering it with the embrace.
Is that how Newlevant feels in this situation? Is stepping outside her homeschooling world a situation that puts her in danger of being overtaken by strands of different ideas and ways of living? Even though removing the ivy to save the trees might be a good idea, is it equally valid to do so in the human realm?
Not that these are questions overtake Newlevant’s work — quite the opposite. They lie in the background as the slice of life expands in its honesty and realism, peppering the experience and making me curious what will come next in this portrayal of a world and situation that I don’t often see portrayed in comics.