Depending on where and who you are, Cannons Cove is either the site of your greatest, fondest childhood memories or a backwater with little to offer but boring jobs and creative nothingness.
For fans of The Gloomies, an iconic film that defined many peoples’ childhoods, including dismissive uber-fans who come to town blaring the soundtrack and demanding to have their nostalgic impulses gratified at every turn, it’s some kind of nirvana, a return to a kindler, simpler, more, ah, foggy time.
But if you’re from Cannons Cove, so named because ships with cannons got sunk there by pirates – some literal naming going on there! – such as the Sheriff’s daughter Wilder who works at a drive-thru coffee shop, it’s the end of the known universe with not much to offer it.
Her friends are a little more upbeat – Karma, a New Age devotee whose simple joy and ditzy optimism is a joy, Macy, who works at the town’s museum and plays in an electropunk feminist noise duo with her brother Todd, and Dot, whose mum is the local librarian and who is the font of all knowledge (and a channeler of dead pirate spirits but that’s a whole other story).
Despite their totally different outlooks on life, these four, fast friends, which also include their friend Ed, are the beating, impetuous heart of Misfit City by writers Kiwi Smith and Kurt Lustgarten (Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You) and artist Naomi Franquiz, a comic strip from BOOM! BOX that is equal parts growing pains, treasure hunt and dissection of small town life and its rewards and limitations.
What makes Misfit City pop from the word go, and there’s an undeniable energy and brio to the story from the first panel, is how vivacious, alive and beautifully fully-formed the characters are.
We meet Wilder in almost the very first panel, and it’s clear that she’s is none-too-happy about being stuck in the less-than-stellar environs of Cannons Cove.
She wears a perpetual sense of ennui and sighs are almost second nature to her – much of this could be slated home to the fact that she’s your typical older teenager, still trying to figure out her place in the world, but you suspect she’s also the kind of person who will grab the first chance to dash from Cannons Cove and never return.
Still for now she’s stuck there, and we know thanks to the inspired-writing, just how little she likes being a resident of a place where the height of the social calendar is the annual Shucks Fair (not so great if you don’t like oysters, seafood or electropunk feminist noise duos).
She is but one of the finely-etched characters who give Misfit City a real sense of playful vivacity and engrossing likeability, a trait that goes a clear factor many degrees when Captain Denby’s treasure map falls out of the trunk he donates to the town’s museum upon his passing.
What looks at first like a lark, a fun diversion for the group of friends from the tedium of small town life and being bullied at school for not being one of the cool kids – both the scornful oppressors, dismissive The Gloomies fans and Denby’s distant relatives who want the map for themselves are more trope-heavy than original but they serve their purpose well – soon becomes, in the tradition of all grand adventures, so much more than that.
Of course, being only a little older than the kids who made The Gloomies such a fun cinematic romp, Wilder, Macy, Karma, Dot and Ed, don’t full appreciate what it is they’re walking, or rather sneaking into, at first.
It’s not until people start getting hit on the head, surprised in darkened mansions and caught out on tribal islands in a howling gale that they come to appreciate that what they see as a diverting excursion is actually a do-or-die effort for many other people, all of whom get introduced throughout the story in much the same way old movie serials did, for maximum effect and cliffhanger potential.
In fact, the volume, which gathers together the first four issues in the series, ends on the mother of all grand reveals and you just know, if you haven’t been keeping up with the unfurling series like yours truly, that volume 2 must be in your hands forthwith and henceforth or you will spend all kinds of agonising time wondering what on earth is going to happen next.
In many ways Misfit City is light and fluffy, a breezy fun-filled adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously; certainly you can see the thematic imprint of a thousand teen stories that have gone before in its sometimes trope-ish narrative.
But that is by no means a negative because Smith and Lustgarten know how to use these tropes and use them brilliantly well, imbuing their story with emotional resonance, the very real search for life meaning that is common to teenagers (and not a few adults) and the need all of us have to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
The fact that they throw of all these substantial elements into the mix, and still emerge with a bright, fun and thoroughly engaging story speaks to how well the writers do what they do.
The artwork too is a pleasure, detailed, colourful, dour when needed and popping in every panel, accenting the storyline while never dominating it, proving how good a team Smith, Lustgarten and Franquiz make (with beautiful colouring by Brittany Peer).
As comic strips go, Misfit City is up among the best, giving up us characters that matter, a story that has you roped in from the word go, a compelling sense of time and place, and the ability to weave in all kinds of issues without once feeling heavy-handed, and always a pleasure to read and lose yourself in on a rainy afternoon when a treasure hunt might indeed be a fun diversion.