As much as indie comics is the realm of emotionally exploratory stories, the freedom inherent in the medium also allows for work that is more interested in tickling our funny bone than touching our heart. This is the case in Stephanie Mannheim’s Nate the Nonconformist Has a Rival!, a fresh outing for the titular Nate within Mannheim’s larger company of characters. As with her previous Nate the Nonconformist comics, the book is a sitcom-esque romp that allows the reader to hangout with Nate and the other ridiculous inhabitants of East High School as they go through their day.
A lot of the joy of Mannheim’s stories comes from her characters’ inherent terrible behavior, so like the best episodes of Seinfeld the main action of each of her comics serves mostly as a framework in which to let the cast’s over the top personalities bounce off one another. This tone is set from the beginning of the issue when after being rebuffed by his now ex-girlfriend Charlotte, greasy brace-faced Nate and his awkward teenage-mustached pal Pete are shocked by the appearance of a new green-haired student who threatens their status as the most non-conforming punks in school. Though intimidated by this new arrival, the dirt bag duo of Nate and Pete quickly turns on each other and squabble over which one of them is the most hardcore, punk rock student at East High School. Their clumsy fisticuffs only broken up by the arrival of a shouting teacher warning them to get to class, leaving them to sulk away grumbling.
The surly shenanigans continue with Charlotte in biology class snapping back at her friend Maggie about having broken up with Nate. The smash cut to Charlotte’s gigantic frown and wide eyed glare letting the reader instantly know that her propensity for difficult teen behavior is the equal of her former boyfriend’s. Mannheim’s cartooning does some strong character work here in capturing Maggie’s dimwitted naivety, as well as their biology teacher’s clueless enthusiasm. Charlotte eager to avoid having to dissect a frog lies and says that she is a vegetarian, giving her an opportunity to flirt with green-haired cool guy Greg. The pair hit it off right away with their mutual love of copying the correct answers out of the teacher’s edition of the textbook. As in the rest of the comic, the comedy comes not only from the characters acting entirely out of self-interest, but the way Mannheim renders the pure joy on their faces as they do so. These are awful people behaving terribly, but in a way that the reader knows they have behaved in the past, or wish we could in the future. So when the biology teacher tells Charlotte she is likely going to fail the biology test and have to attend summer school, the reader can’t help but find it funny as she storms off. We’ve all been there, mad that there are consequences to our actions.
The parallel plotlines only continue to escalate into further ridiculousness moving forward. Nate and Pete decide the best way to show up any green-haired punk poseurs is by getting tattoos and turn to the creepy cubist-faced corner dweller Jenna for assistance. While Charlotte desperate for any help in passing tomorrow’s test is roped into attending Astronomy Club by the overzealous Maggie’s promise of biology notes. In a forgotten part of the school Jenna and her twister mouth full of fangs forcibly tattoos Pete while Nate flees the scene like the sweaty cowardly that he is. Charlotte is also forced to flee the Astronomy Club when she realizes it is actually a sci-fi conspiracy cult convinced that the teachers are aliens. Luckily for her she runs right into green-haired Greg who just so happens to have the biology notes she needs for tomorrow’s test.
It is a credit to Mannheim’s writing and plotting that none of the ratcheting up of the plot feels forced or contrived. Much of this has to do with her strength in creating characters that feel both unique and archetypal, thereby tapping into the greatest parts of character-driven comedy. Nate is distinct but the reader has certainly known their fair share of teenage punks on the offensive against phonies. Charlotte is the classic rebellious bad student but is also her own special brand of schemer. Their fellow students and teachers are all dopes of varying degrees, but it is their particular foolishness that defines them, not their role within the high school hierarchy. The reader can then easily accept the trouble that Nate and Charlotte get themselves into because their self-serving, shortsighted nature is so firmly established in their dialogue, their actions, and the exaggerated emotive way Mannheim renders them. In giving this same level of care to the buffoonish supporting cast as well, she makes the often unhinged world of East High School feel wholly consistent and believable.
This grounding in the predictability of the character’s self-sabotaging behavior means it comes as no surprise when Charlotte botches things with Greg. Invited back to his house to study, she accidentally reveals that she is not the vegetarian she pretended to be, sending Greg into a flood of tears. Of course, this doesn’t stop her from trying to sneak into his room and steal the biology notes. Walking back to her car in defeat she sees the equally dejected Nate, and at last our two surly protagonists reconcile. It’s a touching moment that Mannheim nails by capturing the pair’s common grotesqueness but also ending the page with a down right cute drawing of the couple looking in each other’s eyes. We realize that as difficult as they both are, Nate and Charlotte belong together far more than they belong apart.
Since a happy ending would be out of character for the world of Nate the Nonconformist, the epilogue returns everything to it chaotic status quo. It is revealed that Greg and the rest of the swim team only dyed their hair green because they were going to shave it all off before their first swim meet. Meaning that he was never Nate’s punk rock rival, and that the whole thing was a fabrication born of Nate’s insecurity. Greg also happens to be itching for a fight with Nate after he challenged other members of the swim team in detention the day before. Luckily the conflict is averted as Pete returns with yesterday’s stick and poke tattoo of a dead rat on his arm, causing him to be heralded as the prophesized chosen one by the Astronomy Club cult members. In classic nihilistic sitcom fashion no one has learned anything, no one grew, at best the order of Nate and Charlotte being together has been restored.
Artistically Nate the Nonconformist Has a Rival! is Mannheim’s strongest work to date. With such a character-focused comic, the performances have to carry a lot of the story and it unsurprisingly the place where she most excels as a cartoonist. While her style may strike the reader as a mixture of Peter Bagge and John Kershbaum, Mannheim has fully realized the over exaggerated expressionistic cartooning she has been honing for years. The bulging eyes, idiot grins, angry grimaces, and rubber band limbs have come into their own as a unified aesthetic. Many of her full figure renderings of her characters showcase fantastic physical performance on par with her over the top close-ups. There is also a new level of refinement for Mannheim in other elements of the design. Lines feels crisp and purposeful, and while the backgrounds can be a tad sparse, the use of black to create a sense of space both physical and psychological is applied smartly through out. The neatly controlled yet fully organic lettering also deserves commendation as it nicely adds to the goofball tone Mannheim is trying to set. While the page layouts are a simple six panel grid, Mannheim knows exactly when to mix things up to include a necessary establishing shot.
The indie comic as over-the-top sitcom is a road Mannheim has been forging for a many years now, and with Nate the Nonconformist Has a Rival! all of her talents have come together to create an amazing encapsulation of what she does best. It tells a straightforward story but does so with such confident cartooning and writing that it animates the events of Nate and Charlotte’s day with a frantic boisterous energy that brings them to life. Even in this short volume Mannheim fosters the kind of love for her ridiculous characters that only comes from when we can knowingly laugh at them just for being themselves. That the reader could come away both rolling their eyes and deeply smiling at such purposely difficult characters as Nate and Charlotte speaks volumes about her as a storyteller.
Stephanie Mannheim (W/A) • Birdcage Bottom Books $8.00
Review by Robin Enrico