The Backstagers: Rebels without Applause by James Tynion IV, Rian Sygh & Walter Baiamonte AND The Backstagers and the Ghost Light by Andy Mientus, illustrated by Rian Singh
The Backstagers Volume One: Rebels without Applause
Published by Boom Box!
Purchased from Barnes & Noble
The Backstagers and the Ghost Light
Review Copy from Abrams Kids
Like Lumberjanes, Abrams has had the brilliant idea to give this graphic novel series a middle grade platform. And, they continue to do a fantastic job finding writers to turn graphic novels into novels. The fantastic Mariko Tamaki, co-creator of the Newbery Honor winner This One Summer kicked off the series with Unicorn Power, illustrated by original graphic novel team member, Brooke Allen. For The Backstagers middle grade series, Abrams brought in graphic novel team member Rian Sygh and brilliantly brought on singer, actor, composer and writer, Andy Mientus, best known for his work on stage in Spring Awakening and on television in Smash and The Flash.
Tynion and Sygh have created a fantastic, diverse (visually and in voice) cast of students at St. Genesius's Preparatory High School for boys. There, the crew of Backstagers works to put on the best show possible while coping with demanding actors (Onstagers). They also have access to a door backstage that leads to other worlds, mostly theater related, where a crew of backstagers may have disappeared years earlier. This alternate world is constantly changing in layout and makeup and creatures - or worse - sometimes escape into the world of St. Genesius's. Fun fact: St. Genesius was once a comedian and actor who performed in plays that mocked Christianity until the his onstage-conversion-experience that came while performing in a play that made fun of the rite of baptism. He is the patron saint of actors, lawyers, barristers, clowns, comedians, converts, dancers, people with epilepsy, musicians, printers, stenographers and victims of torture. In Volume 1, Rebels without Applause, we meet Jory, new kid at school who reluctantly joins the backstage crew and immediately gets introduced to Sasha, described as the embodiment of light and energy who loves everything and everyone, who just happens to have a Tool Rat from the alternate backstage world. The crew manages to contain the Tool Rat and make it back safely, although they fail to see the creature with the evil grin watching their return...
I don't have a deep knowledge or understanding of (or longtime participation in) the world of comic books and graphic novels. When I first read Smile by Raina Telgemeier in 2010, I was an immediate convert - to kid's graphic novels - and worked to explore and educate myself in this new (to me) world. But, it seems to be that this genre, or specifically the genre of kid's graphic novels, has been a leader in inclusivity and diversity. In 2017 Brigid Alverson, editor of the Good Comics for Kids Blog, writing for School Library Journal, shed some light on this with her piece, Just Another Day in an LGBTQ Comic and her interview with James Tynion IV. Of his inspiration, Tynion said,
I wanted to write the book that I needed the most, particularly in middle school and when I first started reading comics. . . I was an awkward young kid who was starting to understand that I wasn't straight. I didn't see myself out there and the few bits of gay representation that I saw there were in a stereotypical mold. In building the story, I wanted to go beyond just creating a cast of misfits. I always wanted the book to be about misfits, but I wanted to have different forms of queer masculinity. There are no traditionally macho characters in the book. I really wanted to show how diverse male queerness can be, and when you have a book that embodies lots of different forms of characters it opens it up for you to play those characters off against each other.
Crushes, romance and the opposite of stereotypical masculinity are part of the plot as the crew works in this world and others. Hunter, the carpenter of the crew who has a pink rotary hammer, has a crush on new kid Jory that leaves him blushing almost every other panel. The Backstagers all experience emotions, sometimes in big ways, sometimes in small ways, like when Aziz, usually calm and collected, takes a moment to exhale and cry. As Jon Erik Christianson says in his article for BookRiot from 2017, Blushing Boys, The Backstagers and Toxic Masculinity, "Tynion's script portrays the boys' many feelings as strength - in their communication, compassion, teamwork, friendships, and heroism. Other male-centered properties would paint these moments as as a punchline or weakness. The only Patriarchy Approved™ male emotion is anger, because the it's used to precipitate punching or vengeance (that often involves punching). And there is anger in The Backstagers, but it's not used as a sexy precipitant for sexy violence; it's portrayed as a messy, frustrating emotion that's not superior to reason."
And then there is Beckett, the "mad lighting genius" of the crew. In Volume Two of The Backstagers, The Show Must Go On, the crew hear a cry for help from the backstage beyond and head in to help. There they encounter the techies of Penitent Angels, the all girl's school Beckett went to before transferring to St. Genesius's sophomore year. Beckett being transgender is never part of the plot, it just is. As C.K. Stewart says in his article for Paste, Authentic Trans & Nonbinary Representation in Comics Requires More Than Just a Plot Twist, "The Backstagers doesn't shy away from details that make it clear that Beckett wasn't always the Beckett of today, but there's never a moment where it's painted as a startling revelation." Stewart goes on to lift up Beckett and Tyrion and Sygh, writing, "Trans stories primarily guided by cis writers often center around trans identity in ways that are easiest for cis writers to grasp, giving us those moments of too normal to tell, or stories about bigotry and discrimination. There's a subtle undercurrent at times that the real trans struggle is just surviving long enough for no one to be able to tell we're trans anymore, with no exploration of the ambient hiccups of transition. . . The Backstagers doesn't shy away from details that make it clear that Beckett wasn't always the Beckett of today, but there's never a moment where it's painted as a startling revelation."
With The Backstagers transition to middle grade novel, Mientus creates a third-person omniscient narrator to tell the story of the backstage crew at St. Genesius's with Sygh offering spot illustrations that evoke the world of the graphic novels. While exploring the backstories of the crew, he also introduces a new character, Reo, who is Japanese/Irish. And a witch. Picking up where Volume 2 ended (The Backstagers is an 8 issue series, collected into two volumes with a third volume consisting of special holiday issues) Mientus starts with the cast party for Lease, the show being put on in Volume 2. The Onstagers pull out a spirit board and things take a turn for the worse when the Ghost Light - the light that keeps the ghosts aways - gets broken. You don't have to have read the graphic novels to enjoy Mientus's expansion of the amazing world created by Tyrion and Sygh, but if you haven't, you will definitely want to spend more time with this crew!
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