Missouri Boy by Leland Myrick

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Missouri Boy
Leland Myrick
First Second

missouriboy.jpgLeland Myrick’s autobiographical Missouri Boy is like a shoebox of snapshots, chronologically organized and punctuated subtly by various coming-of-age moments in his life. Each story is awash in the subdued tones of nostalgia and set at a distance by dreamy, poetic narration and sparse dialogue.

A prologue in which the death of his grandmother coincides with his and his twin brother’s birth sets the rest of the portraits in motion, hovering like a ghost over the entire Missouri chapter of his life, from birth to when he takes off for a new life in California at the age of 21.

In between those bookends, there are the typical childhood joys of paper airplanes and fireworks, his preoccupation with his father growing old, the ever-present sadness in his mother’s eyes, the feeling of humiliation and betrayal that comes from a mean-spirited practical joke played on him by his brother and his friends, the inevitable foolish stunt to gain the attention of a pretty blonde, and a few other moments that couldn’t and shouldn’t be left out of an autobiography.

The stories are very loosely connected, but the changes or constancies from one to the next implies a progression in Myrick’s attitudes. His twin brother, and by extension his family, are present throughout the beginning of his life, from womb, to the folding of a single perfect paper airplane, to a final turning point spurred on by a humiliating experience. Those familial relationships fall into the background, and girls start to figure much more largely, possibly as a new diversion, or maybe as an idea of a future whether it is in Missouri or some far off place.

Overall, Myrick is a skilled and careful storyteller. Myrick’s drawings are very often straightforward, never leaving the moment but also using re-occuring or parallel images to create connections between ideas or different parts of his life.

There are a few powerful pieces, most of them to do with his relationship to death and mourning, and the moment when he becomes gripped by the realization of death. His carefree, childhood pieces are lovely. They sparkle with excitement and innocence. His visual style is playful, and his attention to the natural surroundings seems to evoke a long lost world away from today’s more indoor-oriented, video-game obsessed youth culture. Not that he’s trying to say today’s youth are worse off necessarily, but the nostalgia is definitely there.

I think that perhaps Myrick is somewhat less successful with the awkward or embarrassing moments in his life. While it is obvious they carry significance, the weight he brings to them is forced. Usually humor or self-awareness helps move narratives like these along, and he doesn’t seem to employ enough of it except in a brief moment in the Candy Striper story. He is taking a tougher route, stylistically, by carrying the earnest and melancholic tone of the rest of his book into those moments.

In Missouri Boy, happy moments are made to seem happy, sad moments sad, and mortifying moments just plain mortifying. They successfully support the arc of how Myrick came to break from his Missouri origins—which can be interpreted as either escape or an asserting of independence—but they don’t quite have the depth and specificity that would have made each episode work on its own. By limiting what we know about each event to a single point of view, he doesn’t allow them to get away from him, to stray even to the benefit of being open to a richer interpretation.

–Elizabeth Chou