‘No Ivy League’ Comic Review: A Beautifully Honest Exploration of Privilege
Did you ever have a summer job? Free from school for a few months, you take an opportunity to make some extra money, and end up far outside of your comfort zone, doing a job you know nothing about, working with a bunch of total strangers? I’d like to think it’s a pretty common thing.
Hazel Newlevant’s autobiographical graphic novel, No Ivy League, taps into this collective experience with stellar results. It’s a refreshingly honest, self-aware “coming of age” story, that explores complex issues of race, gender, and privilege with care and nuance.
Written and drawn entirely by Newlevant, the art is fantastic. She’s a good writer, but an even better artist; with strong intuition on when less artistic detail is more. She demonstrates a strong grasp of a concept that I’ll borrow from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is the idea that less detailed character design can allow an audience to identify more with a character. It really works in this story.
The coloring is entirely in brushed, grey tones, which fits the book’s autobiographical rooting. It’s as if the readers are invited on a tour of Newlevant’s memories, in one long flashback sequence.
The lead character, Hazel, is a 17 year old homeschooler in Portland, Oregon. She is trying to make some extra money to go see a band in Washington D.C. So when her father brings home a flier for a summer job, she jumps on the opportunity. The job involves clearing invasive ivy from forests, with a crew of other high-schoolers, from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Sheltered white kid discovers others races” can be a little awkward and tropey, but that’s not inherently bad, and Newlevant’s honesty and sincerity really makes the comic work. At some points, No Ivy League leans into the awkwardness and discomfort that experiencing unfamiliar cultures can bring, even if those “unfamiliar cultures” are just the kids from across town.
Although she’s writing about her adolescence, Newlevant explores several topics that are particularly important in the here and now, and she does so with great nuance and depth. In one chapter, Hazel reports a coworker for sexual harassment, and struggles with a variety of complicated emotions when that coworker is fired for his actions. Again, it’s her honesty about the emotions of this event that really stands out. She struggles with guilt, frustration, isolation, and questions about whether she did the right thing.
Her interactions with diverse coworkers also cause Hazel to explore her own privilege, and ask questions of the people around her. Some of the answers are gut-punches, to both Hazel and readers. This is particularly the case when Hazel asks why her parents chose to homeschool her:
Growing up a homeschooler in the Pacific Northwest for a good portion of my own childhood, it was easy to identify with several of Hazel’s experiences. There’s a lot of naivety to kids raised in the “homeschool bubble” that I absolutely understand. Again, Hazel’s interactions with her new coworkers cause her to examine this part of her life. When she asks her boyfriend if he’s ever met any black homeschoolers, it was a question I’d never thought to ask myself. That’s really the most powerful aspect of any work of art; when it challenges the observers to examine their own life and experiences.
It’s the honest exploration of race and privilege that makes No Ivy League special. When you get a “Highly recommended” blurb from March co-creator Nate Powell, you’ve doing something right. (March, for the unfamiliar is the graphic novel autobiography of Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, that has collected awards by the truckload.) Newlevant doesn’t flinch away from the hard or awkward points of her own life story. She doesn’t glamorize or make herself out to be a heroine. She spends most of the time sitting in uncertainty about the world and her role in it, and there’s something really refreshing about that sincerity.
Publisher Lionforge specializes in graphic novels aimed at the Teen to Young Adult crowd, and No Ivy League sits comfortably in that zone. There’s a little bit of swearing and sexual references, so individual appropriateness may vary, but it’s a great comic that explores a lot of worthwhile territory.
No Ivy League is available in comic shops now, and will arrive in bookstores on August 20th.
Hazel Newlevant’s autobiographical graphic novel, No Ivy League is a refreshingly honest, self-aware “coming of age” story, that explores complex issues of race, gender, and privilege with care and nuance.