PRIDE MONTH 2023! With a new hardcover edition coming later this month, a review of Mike Curato’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel Flamer seems most appropriate for our Pride Month coverage. Set in the mid-1990s Flamer is the story of Aiden Navarro, a Filipino American teenager, in the time between middle school and high school. The events of the book take place over the course of a week at summer camp, when Aiden’s life is about to reach a pivotal point as he begins to come to terms with his sexuality; something that is all the harder for him for his strict religious upbringing and fears that being gay is a pathway to hell. Before we go any further though a quick warning that Flamer does include themes of suicidal ideation.
Curato structures Flamer across a handful of days of activities and interactions at scout camp, with occasional flashbacks to important moments in Aiden’s life. Aiden is presented as a sensitive and thoughtful teen who is somewhat isolated within his peer group. Even his best friend Violet, who he relies on as his greatest confidante, is a pen pal. At camp he is subjected to regular bullying, both homophobic and racist, and he also has a lack of self-confidence about his body. When Aiden forms a close friendship with another boy, Elias, he must finally confront the truths he has been denying.
The pacing of Flamer, with its early focus on the boys and their camp routines, allows the reader to become invested in their stories, while Aiden’s flashbacks and dream sequences slowly reveal the depth of his fears and worries. Many of the latter pull in pop cultural references of the era including the death of Phoenix in Uncanny X-Men #137, and Dungeons & Dragons/The Lord of the Rings, very much rooting his experiences in a teen mindset. What stands out here is how quickly we become totally invested in Aiden’s plight, ensuring we experience events in the last third of the book with something approaching the same level of devastation as he does.
Curato’s art is presented in black and white with shades of grey but whenever there are scenes of emotional intensity – Aiden’s dream metaphors or moments of conflict with camp bullies for example – sequences are embellished with a potent use of overlaid red. Curato’s cartooning is stripped back for a more connective relationship between reader and page but nevertheless his employment of the narrative tools of comics is decidedly sophisticated in its application. In fact, it’s that same rawness to the cartooning that makes Aiden an all the more empathetic protagonist. Breakouts into double-page spreads for emphasis – a bear attack on camp or the reflective majesty of nature on a night-time canoe trip for Aiden and Elias – also highlight the importance of key moments in the story.
Flamer is a powerful book. Not just in terms of its depiction of Aiden’s journey for a general audience but also, and more importantly, for what it relates to teens similarly coming to terms with their identities and sexualities. That it is also one of a number of graphic novels apparently being targeted for school library bans only makes it all the more vital that we all do our bit in promoting this insightful and relevant piece of comics storytelling.
Mike Curato (W/A) • Macmillan/Henry Holt, $26.99
Publisher rating: 14-18 years
Review by Andy Oliver