I think I should say up front that before reading this adaptation of The Girl who owned a City I had no previous exposure to this title. Normally I wouldn’t give this a second thought but as a friend quickly told me when we were discussing this book over lunch one day this book is as influential as The Giver in some circles. Apparently it’s read in a lot of middle schools. But not mine. So for that reason, I won’t be able to comment on whether this is a faithful adaption to the source material but at the same time I won’t be bringing in pre-existing baggage of what it got wrong. I can leave that up to other reviewers. What I can do is look at this and tell you if this graphic novel version will be effective standing on its own for a new reader (as I was). And the answer to that is yes…sort of.
Based on the book by O.T. Nelson and adapted by Dan Jolley, The Girl Who Owned a City centers on siblings Lisa and Todd Nelson (the author named them after his real life children) in the intervening months after a plague swept across the world killing everyone over the age of thirteen, only leaving empty clothes and a black dust to show that they once lived. Over the course of the book, Lisa becomes the leader of hundreds of other children and creates a safe haven in a local high school, which she dubs Glenbard. Over time though, she realizes that when you build something there is always someone waiting to take it away from you and she learns the hard way just how hard it can be to maintain control.
Like I said, I can’t be entirely sure how faithful an adaptation this is, but based on my reading of this I thought it was a pretty effective nonetheless. So it must have done something right. Post-apocalyptic stories involving children always seem to swing wildly between Lord of the Flies and Peter Pan but here the story seems to be more grounded in reality. The situation is always clearly dire but also never lets us forget that these are actual children who are making tough decisions. Granted, compared to most apocalyptic stories this story almost seems quaint. Some others spring to mind, but this novel has more of a heavy emphasis on teamwork and standing up to bullies and less to do with bandits roaming the wastelands and fighting in the thunder dome. The story itself seems like a logical extension of a child screaming, “I hate you, I wish you were dead!” at their parent and this is a response that basically says “well here you go, have fun getting attacked by street gangs and nearly starving!”
The story never goes so far to say that children need there parents however. Quite the opposite in fact. It could actually be seen as a pretty interesting way of teaching kids about the constant specter of death and how kids can deal with that. This is especially apparent with the concept of the plague virus still inside the kids (incubating until age 13) and one of them wondering if what they are doing is all for nothing. When we’re younger we think we’re invincible. It’s only later we realize that all our lives end the same way. Here that realization is far more stark and disconcerting. However that realization lends itself to the drive many of the central characters have to survive. It seems like a general consensus among most people is that children are beyond useless. But in reality kids are capable of more than we’re willing to give them credit for. Don’t take this to mean we should start using child labor or anything, but Lisa Nelson shows more sheer ability and imagination than most adults in saying that maybe giving a child more responsibility wouldn’t be the end of the world. You know…unless it’s already the end of the world. Point is, in a YA market currently flooded with “dystopian” and post-apocalyptic fiction, this story still stands out.
The best thing this book has going for it though (at least for me) is the artwork of Joelle Jones. Jones is an artist I’ve been following pretty closely ever since I got back into comics a few years ago with You Have Killed Me and her work here is her best yet. (She is also currently the artist on Dark Horse’s new House of Night series, also based on a popular YA book.) Her character designs are incredibly striking, using sharp line work to give the characters a unique body language and keeping the action visually interesting. The biggest strength with Jones’ artwork in this book is that she draws children that actually look like children. I can’t even begin to list how many comics I have read that feature children that look more like shrunk down adults. So to see them looking like actual kids is incredibly refreshing.
Now we get to the “sort of” of the book’s effectiveness. The Girl Who Owned a City is mostly well known for not only being an influential YA novel but also for its association with Objectivism and its tenants. And since Objectivism is one of those philosophies that cause pretty strong reactions in some people, it merits discussion here. Objectivism is primarily known as the philosophy created by Ayn Rand and whose tenants were fleshed out in her various books, most notably Atlas Shrugged. Believe it or not I actually have some history with Objectivism. Short Version: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was responsible for getting me punched in the face. Long Version: While working a screening of the film version of Atlas Shrugged I got punched in the face by a seventy-four-year-old woman while trying to break up a verbal argument about the merits of Objectivism.
My personal “history” with it aside, Objectivism has long been criticized because one of its main tenants is for a person to always act in their own self interest. Out and out altruism is its greatest sin. That belief is, at the very least, partially on display in the character of Lisa Nelson, as very little of what she does, even if it is in the name of survival, doesn’t directly benefit herself. If someone else gets something from it that is incidental. Overall, I’m not saying that O.T. Nelson’s teaching of Objectivism is bad. If anything all it comes to is self reliance, but that doesn’t mean that the philosophical undertones might be seen poorly. However somebody clearly decided that a strict adherence to Objectivist philosophy probably wouldn’t be the best thing to teach to children and Lisa Nelson never takes those final steps towards absolute philosophical adherence. The overall approach to the philosophy is never so overt that it hampers the story. But once your aware of it, its hard to ignore.
All-in-all, this story, even in graphic novel form, is one that will speak to different people in different ways. Personally I thought it was an effective enough coming-of-age-tale, but at the same time when I consider the philosophical elements I can’t help but feel slightly uncomfortable. I was left wondering if selfishness for the sake of survival was something you should be teaching to kids or teenagers, but I am also looking at the text through the lens of adulthood. Ultimately, I don’t think that’s what this book is about. It’s trying to tell kids that they can achieve just as much as their adult counterparts if they’re willing to work for it. So I choose to leave this book with a positive message. Whether you do the same is up to you.
TL;DR: The Girl who Owned a City is an effective adaptation of the YA novel with some drop dead gorgeous artwork. However, much as in the source material, certain philosophical aspects may or may not rub older readers the wrong way.
The Girl who Owned a City is based on the novel of the same name by O.T. Nelson and adapted by Dan Jolley with art by Joelle Jones. It is published by the Lerner Publishing Group under their Graphic Universe imprint. Ask for it at your local comic book or book shop for April 1, or you can help support Spandexless by pre-ordering it through our Amazon webstore.
A review copy of The Girl who Owned a City was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.