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Review: ‘Pumpkinheads’

Pumpkinheads
Writer: Rainbow Rowell
Artist: Faith Erin Hicks
First Second Books; $24.99

Pumpkinheads has been a highly-anticipated graphic novel long before it was even called Pumpkinheads, or, in fact, the creators had even settled on the story they wanted to tell together. That anticipation was born out of the fact that they were going to be collaborating with one another at all; prose novelist Rainbow Rowell and cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks are both talented, popular and successful in their home media, have both started branching out into one another’s media, and seem to be on a similar wavelength.

Rowell is, of course, responsible for such books as Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Attachments and Wayward Son, the last of which was just released. She began writing comics in 2017, when she and artist Kris Anka relaunched Marvel’s Runaways, probably one of the publisher’s more challenging franchises, after an almost 10-year hiatus.

Hicks’ comics are too numerous to name, but among her better-known works are her just-completed Nameless City trilogy, Friends With Boys and The Adventures of Superhero Girl. She just published her first prose novel, Comics Will Break Your Heart, earlier this year.

What they have come up with together is a funny and heartfelt original graphic novel about Josie and Deja, two high schoolers who are one another’s very best friends for two months out of every year, on what might very well be their very last night together in the very place they have spent almost the entirety of their friendship.

That place is DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch & Autumn Jamboree, or just “The Patch” for short, a sort of fall fun destination featuring seasonal amusements like hayrides, a haunted house, a corn maize and snack stands galore. Every September 1st,, Josie and Deja have donned the red flannel shirts and denim overalls that are The Patch’s uniforms  and manned the Succotash Hut, where they, um, made succhotash.

During their years there, Josie has been the MVPPPthat’s Most Valuable Pumpkin Patch Person—seven out of eight months, and he is feeling somewhat melancholy about this Halloween being his last night there. And so Deja has come up with a plan to make sure he can leave The Patch with no regrets: She finagled to have them transferred from the Succotash Hut to the The Pie Palace, which is right across from The Fudge Shoppe, which is where Fudge Girl works.

You see, Fudge Girl is the girl that Josie has been mooning over-—”loudly and at length,” in Deja’s wordsfor years, but Josie being shy and awkward, he’s never once talked to her. So Deja is going to force him to do so, to seize the last chance he’ll ever have.

Things go awry almost immediately, however, when they find that Fudge Girl has been relocated to another location (and another after that), and ultimately they make the decision to abandon their posts, go rogue and begin an epic journey throughout The Patch to find Fudge Girl…and to eat one of each of the Patch’s snacks, a sort of side-quest Deja came up with to give her something to do besides act as moral support for Josie.

It will quickly become apparent that Josie’s feelings for Fudge Girl are a tad on the shallow side (Basically, she seems to him like someone he would love, and by never actually speaking to her, she remains unknown enough to him that he can continue to think of her as perfect), and that Josie and Deja are both enormously fond of one another, and are going to miss one another terribly…and that maybe there’s more than a platonic affection forged from four falls of stirring succotash together between them.

While they communicate mostly in almost theatrical snappy dialoguesomething they share with The Runawaystheir true feelings are mostly conveyed in silent panels where one glances at the other, or the look on one’s face while the other is talking. Appropriately enough, Hicks conveys much of the most emotional content in the imagery of the comic.

Pumpkinheads scans an awful lot like a small-budget teen comedy, or, at times, almost like a play, given the narrative constraints in the setting: It all takes place over the course of a single night, remember, and it all takes place within the fences of The Patch, which becomes an obstacle course for our heroes, as Fudge Girl keeps moving (always off-panel, until suddenly she’s not), and various challenges arise, like a rampaging billy goat escaped from the petting zoo, a snack-stealing kid and the swarms of last-night customers.

After the pumpkin pie-sweet conclusion, there are some back features, as there often are in First Second books. Among the early character sketches and what not, there is a transcription of a conversation between Rowell and Hicks in which they talk about how this particular story came about, and there we see one reason why the book might have had a somewhat filmic element to it: Rowell wrote a very loose, movie-like script for Hicks, leaving it to Hicks to break the scenes down into panels (So maybe in the credits at the top of this post, Hicks should be listed as a writer as well as the artist; comics collaborations, at their best, are often murky like that.)

Whatever they did, it worked. Pumpkinheads simultaneously feels a lot like a Rowell work and a lot like a Hicks work, and it synthesizes the virtues of each half of the creative team in the process of telling a light-hearted but touching teen romance. 

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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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