Title & Author: Little Fish, written and drawn by Ramsey Beyer
Published by: Zest Books in September 2013
Note: I pointed out recently that I will be using page numbers in my reviews to “practice what I preach” to my comp students, but this book does not have numbered pages!
I decided to check out Ramsey Beyer’s work because she was recommended during a Grab the Lapels “Meet the Writer” feature with comic artist Liz Prince. Little Fish is a graphic memoir that looks at the author’s first year of college, starting with the summer before she leaves in small-town Paw Paw, Michigan, and ending just as summer begins after her spring semester at an art college in Baltimore concludes.
In the first few pages, the author introduces herself in the present. She says she’s Ramsey, 28 years old, and lives in Philly where she makes comics about her own life. I like this introduction, as it shows readers that Ramsey Beyer became a “successful adult.” Liz Prince started in a similar way in Tomboy. Prince’s adult self would jump in the narrative of her childhood to add insights she’s gained since she was a girl. Ramsey Beyer’s adult self never comes back, and I wasn’t sure why not. There were many times I wanted more reflection of what freshman-year Ramsey felt.
The majority of Little Fish is told through lists that Beyer wrote while she was in college. I didn’t like these. They add very little insight and could have served as reminders to the author of how she was at 18, or the author could have commented on the lists and how sometimes her feelings changed really fast (like from depressed to bouncy, for example, in a matter of days). Some lists provide better insight, such as the one that talks about why she wanted to go to a school in the city. Here are a few reasons:
“–i need to push my boundaries in every way
–i’ll make better art if i’m uncomfortable and inspired
–i don’t want to be able to fall back on my friends and family. if i lived nearby, i don’t think i would end up pushing myself”
Some of the other items include immature observations, like “the East Coast seems so cool!” but there are moments where Beyer shows us she was a deeply reflective 18-year-old. It just that most of her lists don’t demonstrate that, and lists consume the pages of Little Fish.
What I did appreciate about the lists is that they were constructed in a visually appealing way. Many were cut up and placed on top of textured back grounds, like strips of duct tape, bubble wrap, or knitted fabric (Beyer was in knitting club in college). These textured backgrounds are made of materials popular with teenagers, but also demonstrate Beyer is thinking about the composition of images.
Little Fish is also told through Livejournal posts the author made when she was 18. Ramsey Beyer graduated high school and went to college the same year I did, so I could relate to how popular Livejournal was at the time. Also, Beyer and I both grew up in small-town Michigan. I frequently drive past her hometown of Paw Paw on my way to visit relatives! I’m not sure that the Livejournal posts will add much for all readers, but to me, they added a level of nostalgia for 2003-2004.
Since this is a graphic novel, there has to be some panels like we normally think of in comics. I liked these the best, as the author drew herself asking questions and thinking about what’s going on during her first year at college. She worries that she’s not political enough, and her new friend Daniel prods her to consider her position on topics like feminism and animal rights. This was the interesting material; the conversations with her friends and subsequent reflections on the conversations are rich. The drawing style is simplistic–a bit like the cartoon Doug–which keeps the attention on the ideas and not the drawing details.
Overall, Little Fish is a slice of life story that begins and ends arbitrarily: with the start and conclusion of Beyer’s first year of college. Although she expresses frustration with her art classes, readers are never shown any of her art projects or actually see her struggling. Classes are often mentioned on a list. For instance, on the list titled “school is hard sink or swim” she writes, “–my very first assignment in drawing class was to draw 100 hands and 100 feet by the following week. thats a lot of drawing (!!) and that was only one class out of four that i had for homework that week”. I wanted to know how that week went! Was she constantly drawing? What did the hands look like? The only point of reference readers have for Beyer’s artwork is the book they hold in their hands. She also changes majors to animation, a form of art she’s never done but ends up loving after taking one class. What do they do in that class? What are her projects like? Beyer leaves readers hanging.
Instead, Beyer mostly focuses on what “kind” of friends she has and how having people who know everything about her affects the depth of her feelings for those individuals. Beyer’s friends from Paw Paw, MI, knew her since she was five. Her new friends in college are totally different. Yet, readers don’t get to know anyone well. They’re mostly described in lists! More lists! For example, “Olivia likes: activism, films, going on dates, trying new food, and veganism.” The lists don’t help the reader, but they seem to help Beyer think about what friends are and where they can come from. After living together and talking intimately for 2 semesters, Beyer’s new friends earn a place in her heart because they know so much about her. As a result, when she’s at college she wants to be home, but when she’s at home, she often misses college! This is good stuff that would be helpful for new high school grads. That is the best audience for Little Fish: high school graduates off to college.
I felt like it was refreshing to read about someone who represents straightedge life, even though Beyer hates that term–because she’s the kind of person I was at her age. Everyone wants to see their story told in media, to see themselves represented and identify with the people depicted. But, this book doesn’t push the author. It’s a lot of cut and paste (literally) from 2003-2004, causing the book to tell readers quite a bit of information without showing it, and without trusting readers to pick up on visual ques in a visual medium.