A Mess of Everything
By Miss Lasko-Gross
As the comics medium has flourished over the past decades, autobiographical (and semi-autobiographical) comics seem overdone—or are at least well on their way to being so. How many first-person stories about growing up do we really need? How different can they all really be? It’s hard to ignore such questions when picking up Miss Lasko-Gross’s second graphic novel, A Mess of Everything. The book, which is also number two in her semi-autobiographical trilogy, tells the tale of Melissa, as she goes through high school. Admittedly, I wasn’t hugely excited by this prospect. I’ve read plenty of these types of books.
But A Mess of Everything surprised me. It turned out to be quite worthy: funny, insightful, and at times, moving. It’s not a revolutionary book—it doesn’t stretch or redefine the bounds of its genre—but Lasko-Gross reminded me that the beauty of her chosen genre is that everyone’s story is, in fact, different and unique. If the author is a skilled storyteller, it’s as good as a reason as any to read yet another graphic novel about growing up, even if you’ve already read many.
Let’s start with the title: It is perfect. When you’re a teenager, you pretty much always feel like you’ve made a mess of everything—or, even if it’s not your doing, like everything is a complete mess. Lasko-Gross hits the nail on the head with her title, which captures perfectly the angst that fills Melissa’s journey.
Said journey takes place in an comfortable, safe town where, as Melissa acknowledges, there’s virtually no violent crime or poverty. But, like teenagers the world over, she is unendingly bored and restless. Her experience in high school encompasses all the usual struggles for a girl her age: boys and sex, bitchy girl friends, girl friends with eating disorders, drugs, acne, and figuring out how to trust and be yourself. To top it all off, Melissa is extremely smart and precocious, finding high school to be “all ‘euro-supremacist’ and misogynistic lies.”
Lasko-Gross tells the story in short, individually titled episodes rather than as one continuous narrative—a series of snapshots, really. Though the vignettes stay in chronological order—no flashbacks or jumping around—this format affords her a certain freedom that regular storytelling would not. The opening episode acts as a kind of introduction, but beyond that, there is really no exposition. Lasko-Gross jumps right in to the meat of it, highlighting the relevant and important people or events and skipping the rest.
At times, this can be a little bit frustrating for the reader, as some characters appear once or twice only to vanish for good. We are left to assume that they have essentially vanished from Melissa’s life as well, or that they remain there but lurk in the unimportant background, but that doesn’t always seem to do them justice. One episode, “Not to Love” (which also contains the title line for the book), shows Melissa with a boyfriend, Elijah, who tells her he loves her. Although she enjoys his company, her thoughts let us know she doesn’t feel the same way. The story ends with the two kissing and then parting ways—but that’s it. Elijah never re-enters the book, and while we can assume they broke up, it’s a bit of miffing experience for the reader.
It does point, however, to the way in which Lasko-Gross posits Melissa as the absolute center of the book. Supporting characters are important for how they relate to her, for what they teach us about her, but ultimately they are just there to support. A Mess of Everything is the exploration of the psyche of one character, a premise emphasized by a recurring visual motif that represents Melissa’s thoughts. An abstract pattern that looks like a maze or a web of roots and suggests a brain or some kind of organic form, the pattern appears whenever she is deep in thought and serves almost as an aura.
It is a subtle, bluish-grey aura, though, pretty much in the same color tones as the rest of the book. The reason for this muted palette isn’t entirely clear—maybe because it hints at flashback, positing the story in the past, or because angst combined with bright colors might be a bit over-the-top. Either way, the art is nicely detailed and heavily shaded, giving the images a life of their own. And the title pages and panels for the episodes definitely have lives of their own: These expressionistic and sometimes semi-trippy drawings play up Lasko-Gross’s ability to tell a not-entirely new story in a novel way.