There’s an undeniable tried and true love for an underdog. A protagonist with the odds stacked against them is often as relatable as it gets. And while often it’s a pretty formulaic tale, there are a multitude of variables at play among the plentiful iterations of the underdog story. Perhaps our protagonist is unwilling. Perhaps they have an unshakeable tenacity for striving against the odds, their course too true to buckle under the weight of their obstacles.
If you’re lucky, you’ve got an “A League of Their Own” situation on your hands, and you get all of these underdogs rolled into one heartwarming tale. This is the case for the first volume of Boom! Box Comics’ “The Avant-Guards” — a story that dresses up the standard underdog story in a wealth of representation rarely seen in the genre.
The graphic novel, which comes from writer Carly Usdin (“Heavy Vinyl”) and artist Noah Hayes (“Wet Hot American Summer”), centers on transfer student Charlie as she is won over by the lovable and forward Liv to join the Georgia O’Keeffe College of Arts and Subtle Dramatics’ first female basketball team, the Avant-Guards.
From its opening pages, the graphic novel presents itself as adorably stylized and easily consumable. The illustration is clean and distinct, without ever feeling too busy or too simple. With small details in the background that complement and serve the narrative, the story defines itself as being concerned to the perfect degree with striking a balance between the two.
The conversation between these elements creates a story that is rife with loveable characters, tense action and delightful anticipation for what else is to come from the series. By the end of the volume, one can’t help but buzz with excitement for what’s next for these unique characters.
The way that the art informs the story creates succinct and successful world building that garners love for the ensemble cast almost immediately. In its brevity (much of the world building is neatly summed up by the end of the first chapter) the graphic novel also defines the story as being larger than the characters themselves — a fact that is abundantly clear in the diversity and inclusion that clings to every page.
Sports comics are not hard to come by in this day and age, particularly in mediums centered on illustration. But even so, it is still so rare to see a comic as queer and colorful as that of “The Avant-Guards.” And what’s more, the comic is remarkably unconcerned with these facets that so dramatically differentiate it from others of its kind. It doesn’t feel like a statement that nearly all of its characters are queer, be that in gender, sexuality, or both. The non-issue attitude the story regards these facts of identity with is incredibly refreshing. It is this easy inclusivity that drives “The Avant-Guards” in its effort to redefine what a sports comic can look like.
And it’s easy, because it’s real.
The characters and world of “The Avant-Guards” present a representation of the quintessential liberal arts college — every student easily being someone you’ve met before. The spirituality-obsessed witch, the drama queen, the cynical softy — you name it. Any one of the characters driving the story could be your best friend, your classmate, your roommate or your ex.
And each of these idiosyncrasies lend the story agency by creating a tangible world.
It’d be easy, when presenting such readily identifiable archetypes, to then create one-dimensional characters. This is not a trap that “The Avant-Guards” falls into. Each moment of dialogue, however brief, delivers a treasure trove of insight into how the characters operate, both on their own and with each other.
It doesn’t hurt that the story switches points of view, giving the readers a little time to sit with many of the cast in a meaningful way, even if only briefly.
“The Avant Guards” is a treat and a half, and whatever comes next for this crowd of underdogs is sure to be a slam dunk.
Areyon Jolivette is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].