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Review: ‘The Breakaways’

The Breakaways
Writer/artist: Cathy G. Johnson
First Second Books; $19.99

There’s a pattern to most sports movies, particularly those focusing on a ragtag group of underdogs or misfits who come together to form a team. Maybe they go all the way and win the big game at the climax, or maybe they lose but still find a different sort of victory, as they learn the value of teamwork, find a place for themselves in their sport, or revel in defying expectations.

Cartoonist Cathy G. Johnson surely knows this pattern, or else she wouldn’t be able to so sharply and effectively break it as she does in The Breakaways. It’s a sports comic with the basic shape and big, diverse cast of outsiders that one might find in a typical sports narrative, but it’s also a subversive one, coming to the conclusion that the least interesting part about such stories tends to be the sport itself.

The main protagonist is Faith, a quiet fifth-grader who has just started middle school and is worried about fitting in. While her true passion is drawing and imagining stories about a medieval messenger who hangs out with her and gives her advice in her fantasies and dreams, she is easily convinced to sign up for the girls soccer team.

See Amanda Schulz, a tall, blonde, popular eighth-grader who is so pretty she emits sparkles, tells Faith that she needs just one more girl to sign up for soccer, or else there won’t be a team this year. And that’s it. That’s all it takes. It’s not until Faith actually shows up for her first practice that she realizes that not only is there a girl’s soccer team, but there are three teams: A, B, and C, each separated by ability.

Faith is on the C Team, The Bloodhounds, with all of the other girls not good enough to make A Team or B Team, some of whom were also tricked into signing up by Amanda’s pitch. There Faith is immediately taken under the wings of Marie and Sodacan, who introduce her to the other girls as they pass them by during laps, usually via taunts and gossip about Faith’s new teammates.

The team dynamics are an unsettlingy realistic web of the sorts of behavior that Rosalind Wiseman chronicled in her Queen Bees and Wannabes book and the movie Mean Girls turned into pop culture gold. The less socially awkward of The Bloodhounds are divided into little two-person cliques, like Sodacan and Marie or the girls they call Bulldog and Warthog, and everyone seems to be cruel to everyone else in one way or another. Even the girls in those cliques have problems with one another.

While Faith passively takes all of this in, and tries to be friends with everyone, or at least figure out what everyone’s deals are, Johnson shows us the girls’ home lives, revealing that every single one of them has some sort of problem that earns them a degree of sympathy to the reader, who is of course privy to all this information their classmates aren’t. Even though none of these problems really justify their more anti-social behavior, it does help explain it. We also learn that most of the girls, like Faith, have other interests and passions that they would rather be spending time on than soccer.

And so it is at the climax, after  Faith has strove mightily to make the best of her situation and to try to instill some sense of team spirit among The Bloodhounds, that Johnson gives The Breakways its big anti-sports narrative moment.

Getting creamed during the big game, after an entire season of losing games, everyone looks to Faith and asks what they should do.

“Let’s leave,” she suggests. “Forget what I said before. This isn’t working. Let’s just go.”

When a teammate challenges her, saying they can’t just go, Faith makes an impassioned, inspirational speech:

We can’t? Isn’t this what being a team is all about? Sticking together? None of us likes soccer. Who cares if the team wins? I don’t care. I just want you guys to be my friends.

And so en masse the team runs off the field to go hang out at Sodacan’s house, listen to her terrible band play, eat pizza and hang out. And don’t worry, they don’t get in trouble. Their coach doesn’t like soccer, nor care if they win, lose or even play. He spends most of the book checked out, looking at his smartphone.

It’s a really fun, really empowering moment, and one that helps bond the girls, as not liking soccer is one thing they all have in common, the thing that transcends all their differences and dramas.

There are, of course, many other sub-plots that get fought over and resolved throughout the course of the book, and I don’t want to oversimplify the unifying power of hating organized youth sports in Johnson’s story; in addition to being sometimes painfully realistic and quite empathetic to the plight of others, it’s full of strong characters in dynamic relationships to each other.

Johnson’s art style―unpretentiously 2D figures, limited background, minimal facial features including eyes consisting of just vertical lines beneath horizontal eyebrows―helps blunt some of the angstier bits and keep a relatively light mood throughout, even as the tone wiggles back and forth between drama and comedy.

Although The Breakways isn’t Johnson’s first comic, it is her first original graphic novel for young readers, and its a perfect one for those that are going to school and playing sports. Particularly―no, especially―if they hate doing so.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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