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Review: Brain Camp

Reviewer: Lissa Pattillo

Authors: Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan
Artist: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: First Second Books
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: August 2010

Synopsis: “Neither artistic, dreamy Jenna nor surly, delinquent Lucas expected to find themselves at an invitation-only summer camp that turns problem children into prodigies. And yet, here they both are at Camp Fielding, settling in with all the other losers and misfits who’ve been shipped off by their parents in a last-ditch effort to produce a child worth bragging about. But strange disappearances, spooky lights in the woods, and a chilling alteration that turns the dimmest, rowdiest campers into docile zombie Einsteins have Jenna and Lucas feeling more than a little suspicious… and a lot afraid.”

(Editor’s note: Sharing something a little different today, a review of Brain Camp to commemorate it’s release this week. Sure manga’s the proverbial bees-knees for most of us, but let us never forget how much other fun, quality stuff is on shelves to check out also. Now and again I’ll be having these special reviews to show some other titles that I think readers here would be interested in as well. Enjoy!)

Jenna and Lucas are two teenagers trying to do what so many others their age are – find their own places in the world. Unfortunately the world isn’t always so generous with time for this kind of coming of age and the two meet when their parents force them to Camp Fielding – a summer camp that guarantees a transformation of children from problem to prodigy. Summer camp may already be a kids’ worst nightmare but at Camp Fielding the awkward homesickness also comes with missing kids, conspiring counsellors, hidden labs and a giant creature roaming the skies at night.

The story of Brain Camp is strongest during the small but considerably more empathetic scenes. Sure that gross distorted looking bird corpse that Jenna accidently squishes is something nasty but somehow doesn’t manage to feel as compelling as her getting her first period. It all comes down to how relatable these scenes are – from the despair that is being forced to summer camp to the tenure of child-parent relationships – there’s so much good ‘life’ stuff here that the crazy, sci-fi-ish subplot that quickly becomes the focal point feels almost too alien. It starts to feel like the weird-factor is happening simply because it needs to, like the writer had to remind themself it was going that way and deviate back in that direction. The ‘life’ and ‘conspiracy’ themes of the story work really well on their own but meshed together they lose their individual lustre and often feel at odds.

Still, strong as the down-to-earth scenes are, when things start getting crazy it’s hard not to want to know why. Feathers spewing from people’s mouths, gross fleshy lumps of purple some things on the ground and the mother of all zits appearing on peoples’ heads before they eventually disappear. The book starts building up some pretty good suspense come the climatic build with particular note to the scariness of seeing the camp coordinators choose their next ‘batch’ and come to take them, often leaving only the markings of their attempts at escape upon the cabin’s musty floors. There are some plot holes that do sort of spoil good early build up but by the time you get to the end and the WTF factor really clicks in, the small plot holes are the least of your attention span’s concerns.

As far as the story’s characters go, on the sidelines you have your standard archetypes – bitchy girl bullies, pushy camp counsellor, generic short-term-best-friend, etc. but they play their respective roles well enough, proving stepping stones for the leads to advance the plot. Jenna and Lucas are the stars of the show and they generally steal it, balancing attention fairly well between them both. It’s especially neat at the beginning getting glimpses of their individual lives before watching their very begrudging friendship form at camp. Word of warning, though perhaps with little surprise to it for a story starring a teenage boy and girl, love does conquer all but to the story’s credit it’s refreshing to see it handled in a chemically-imbalanced way over the less tangibly probable pure-love-wins-all. Their presumably-inevitable romance feels a little too plot-convenient but all things considered the two getting close quick doesn’t feel as out there as it could.

The artwork of Brain Camp is by Faith Erin Hicks – a Canadian born graphic novel artist perhaps best known for her works, Zombies Calling and Wars on Ellesmere. Her art style will be pretty immediately recognizable to past readers of her work but should prove as equally eye-catching to readers new and old. Most refreshing about the artwork is how real the characters look – not photo realistic but with some good, grounded attributes. No one comes off as an out of place model or a starving toothpick, everyone looks pretty average and it’s nice to see. Everyone’s easy to tell apart but just as easily imagined as anyone you’d see walking down the street and this really helps set both the tone and character-driven nature of scenes throughout.

Brain Camp also marks the first full-length full colour work of hers and it looks pretty good, albeit a little too low contrast sometimes. Everything is filled in using very Earthy-tones and while it suits the summer-camp locale, it would’ve been nice to see some more use of primary colours for a little more pop. It creates a very low-key, almost sombre like tone throughout the book and while that isn’t inaccurate as far as complimenting the story, it sometimes feels a bit much from start to finish.

Overall Brain Camp does unfortunately suffer considerably from its uneven storytelling but still manages to get by on the strength of its more memorable individual scenes and general need-to-know finale that coasts to the finish on cheese but still does so in a way that proves entertaining. The artwork of the book shouldn’t disappoint however and the whole package is topped off with snazzy production value that includes glossy paper throughout and thick faux cover-slip with a nice visual synopsis over the usual paragraph-format. Brain Camp makes for a bit of a bizarre read but in a fairly tidy one-shot formula, it proves a fairly charming diversion none the less.

Review written May 23, 2010 by Lissa Pattillo
Book provided by creator for review purposes

About the Author:

Lissa Pattillo is the owner and editor of Kuriousity.ca. Residing in Halifax, Nova Scotia she takes great joy in collecting all manners of manga genres, regretting that there's never enough time in the day to review or share them all. Along with reviews, Lissa is responsible for all the news postings to the website and works full time as a web and graphic designer.



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