Whit’s Thursday Review: Melissa Mendes’ ‘Lou’ Series
I sat down to start Melissa Mendes’ minicomic saga Lou (Oily Comics), figuring I’d stretch the 17 comics out over 2 or so days. Nope. I read the whole thing in one sitting because each chapter (aka. minicomic) left me wanting more. This is a tribute to Mendes’ ability to use a storytelling structure for each episode that leaves the reader in suspense. Mendes released an episode of Lou each month, starting in 2012 and finishing in August 2013. It has been one of the anchors of the Oily lineup and one that has developed gracefully.
Although Lou, the tomboy middle child in her family, is touted as the main character, this is really a story about family dynamics. Lou has a younger brother named John, who is the typical youngest child, in some ways wanting to emulate his older siblings but being held back by both of them and his parents. Eddie is the oldest and is humorously portrayed as an angsty metalhead teen who might appear tough and nonchalant on the outside, but is quite responsible and nurturing to his siblings. Although the story is mostly focused on the siblings, Mendes tells the story of how the parents Annie and Eddie met in episode 12. It’s a delightful story especially because we see the enduring love that the couple shares years later.
There are multiple storylines that converge at the end which is part of the reason why it’s hard to put the minis down. At dinner one night, Lou’s dad mentions that a colleague has some puppies. Despite her mother’s reluctance, her dad takes her to get a puppy. She picks the runt of the litter, naming him Sammy. Sammy is another regular character who is touchingly portrayed. For anyone who’s had a childhood pet, it’s very familiar to recall the feeling of loyalty and unconditional love that both parties feel for each other. Meanwhile, Eddie, who works at the local Valentine’s Pizza, deals with a mysterious boss named Joey, who appears to have some sketchy affiliations and may be in danger. It’s one of those situations that hints to organized crime, but it’s never quite elaborated on.
While this is going on, Lou and her friends stumble upon an abandoned building which they explore. The inside looks extraterrestrial and the gang transforms it into a playground of sorts. The thing I liked about this as well as the pizza storyline is how it captures living in a rural area or small town. When there’s not much around you end up at the same places and become creative out of necessity. I don’t know what the kids are up to these days, but it was fun to reminisce about what it was like to actually play before the rampant use of technology (although the siblings watch TV often). The story definitely has a 90s feel which is readily identifiable for anyone in their 20’s and early 30’s. Mendes mentions in one of her postscripts (more on them later) that she was influenced by Nickelodeon shows from that era, which is quite noticeable and nostalgic.
As Eddie ends up running Valentine’s after Joey’s disappearance, Lou and her friends become regulars at the abandoned building. She even gets a boyfriend, however reluctantly at first. Mendes captures very young love during the period when boys and girls first start to notice the opposite sex in more than a friendly way and the ambivalence and confusion it stirs up.
When the parents go out for an anniversary outing, Lou and John get in a typical children’s fight which leads to John going to his room and sneaking out the window to go to the abandoned building (he had secretly followed Lou to the spot before). I won’t get into what happens after that, but he makes a big discovery there which perfectly ties up all of the storylines. The takeaway message? Family is the glue that holds everything together.
The general consensus out there is that Mendes is skilled at telling stories about children. Yes, this is true and there are multiple reasons for this. She’s a good conversationalist, using sparse dialogue effectively to capture the nature not only of how children talk, but also parents. Children are often literal in their dialogue but this does not always indicate their internal worlds.
Mendes juxtaposes this minimal dialogue with telling facial expressions and postures. Her art is not overly elaborate, but simple and sketchy, which does not overwhelm the story. Interestingly, Mendes uses a gray wash in the first four episodes, but then eliminates it in the remaining ones, shifting to just black and white. I liked the use of gray, but I think the black and white really highlights the aforementioned simplicity.
As mentioned earlier, Mendes ends each comic with a postscript page which includes everything from fan art to heartfelt letters to her readers. These letters were my favorite as they are very introspective about what it means to grow up and try to make sense of your life, even if you had assumed that it would get simpler. We see her current evolution through these letters, while at the same time seeing the evolution of the story’s characters. The Lou series is a fine collection of work and one which I assume (and hope) will be collected into a book. If you want a feel good story, this is your series.
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