My main exposure to Sloane Leong so far was through the lenses of science fiction and fantasy. Whether it was her artwork (lines and colors) in From Under Mountains, which she co-created with Claire Gibson and Marian Chruchland, or her sadly short-lived one-woman series Prism Stalker. In both projects, her unique style of flowing lines running smoothly along the page giving life to the characters as they danced, fought, and loved their way through impossibly lush realities, was given further life by her sense of color. From Under Mountains kept a certain sense of naturalism, which she occasionally broke, but Prism Stalker used its alien locations fully to create a pulsing, gooey, living environment. It looked like nothing else on the shelf, and it used that look to tell us about people who were pushed aside because they didn’t look or act like the majority.
The announcement that Leong’s next project would be a grounded, young-adult drama about basketball-playing teens caught me by surprise. Partly, at least, I feared that by placing her story in a familiar environment that aims for realism would act as a limiter of Leong’s artistic vision. A Map to the Sun immediately shatters any sense of worry I might have had from page one. Leong is not bound within a naturalistic milieu, she is not bound within anything but her own creative energy.
The story is mostly (though not wholly) focused on the friendship between teens Ren and Luna; they became best friends in record time only to have it all disappear once Luna’s family move. Years later, Luna returns and insists on inserting herself into Ren’s (far more complex) life, even joining the school’s newly formed female basketball team. From the get-go, this graphic novel offers visions of pulsating colors creating an overexposed world seen through the hazes of a burning sun. As Ren plays basketball alone in the opening scene, her figure is stark against the glowing background. The other protagonist, Luna, dives as she tries to surf, the basketball giving way to flowing water as pinkish tones intermingle with the red and yellow.
The book flows just as Leong’s artwork does; moving with breezy confidence from scene to scene. While the color-work is, probably, the first thing the reader notices when reading the book, it’s impossible to ignore Leong pencils. Like everything else in the book, it shifts and shapes according to the necessary mood: relaxed and free-formed one moment (as the characters get comfortable within their own zone), only to become tense and harsh within the next. It’s a story that follows its protagonists through good and bad times and is equally adept at presenting either.
Sadly, this flowing sense occasionally means that the reader’s eye can occasionally get lost within the page. During some of the more energetic scenes, including the all-important basketball games, it becomes difficult to tell some of the characters apart. Leong makes sure to give each of the teens distinct body shapes, facial expressions, and sense of personal fashion – but even that dedication to the characters can be overwhelmed by the stark colors and the momentum of the scenes.
Much of the story is dependent upon the uncertainty of the characters’ lives, they exist on the margins of society, sometimes even within their own household, and they are forced to make do with whatever they can find. This isn’t a story about a fight for survival, though, but it is one that takes for granted that these teens live in an environment many would consider harsh and they have learned to compensate for that. When being told her drug-addicted sister is coming to ask for money again, Ren is not appalled as much as she is tired; she has seen it before and she will see again. She knows she must soldier through.
The imaginative nature of the art in A Map to the Sun is well-complimented by Leong’s ear for dialogue. No matter how heightened the palate of the comic gets, the way these characters interact helps the reader to keep in mind that they are real people (not to imply that line work fails at body language – far from it). There is a natural flow to the rhythm of their speech and the topics of conversation. The younger characters are constantly on the brink of broaching painful, hard subjects, only to back away at the last minute. They recognize that simply talking about these subjects, airing them out, will not magically solve them. Burying these things is not a form of ignorance; it’s a recognition that there are no easy solutions to such complex problems, and, even if there were solutions, people from their socio-economic background would not be the first (or second, or third) to receive them.
This “lack of solution” element is a key component of A Map to the Sun. At first glance, this story appears familiar, we all know how this is meant to go. The girls will get better at sport, and, as they become better athletes, they’ll become better people. This will all end in a championship game of some sort in which everything they’ve learned, as players and people, comes together and they prove their exceptionalism to the world. Except, in Leong’s story, none of this happens. There is no championship, no grand victory, no fast and easy solutions. Sure, Ren has gained the attention of a professional scout, but there is no guarantee that she’ll go pro herself; and even if she does, this does not help her friends solve their problems.
In A Map to the Sun, basketball doesn’t become something that defines all of these characters (even Ren), it is something that they do. They have a life beyond it, a messy, hard, wonderful, painful, lovely life. This is Leong’s longest work to date and the high page count is totally justified. She uses all the extra space to explore the inner lives of the characters beyond the court – their relations with family and friends (and enemies), the compressed politics of running a school, sexual awakening, and everything in between
Many of the best young adult graphic novels of the last decade, graphic novels like This One Summer and Spinning, have found success by rejecting straightforward plot mechanics and focusing their attention on depicting movement and sensation. What we remember from these comics is not necessarily the turn of events but the emotions they evoked, their sense of time and place, getting lost in all the small moments that compose a young life – from playing games, to listening alone to music, to talking with your friends. A Map to the Sun is as worthy an heir to this title as you could find: a shining example of everything that could be achieved in this form and genre.