People love new starts.
Well, the idea of them anyway; the actual execution is not as popular, coming as it does with nerves (those butterflies sure can fly some impressively-jarring formations in your stomach), hang-ups, past issues and the daunting fear that what lies ahead may not be a good as envisaged.
That is, unless you’re Olivia Bates, one of the lead characters in Carly Usdin’s The Avant-Guards (artwork by Noah Hayes).
Olivia, god bless her irrepressibly-optimistic cotton socks, is an unstoppably-enthusiastic art college student who is determined to start a women’s basketball team at their school, come what may, who can orchestrate a persuasive campaign to convince reluctant people like Charlie to join, and who announces their first practice with the kind of Chicago Bulls warm-up music accented flair from which grandly-dramatic showbiz careers are made.
As far as Olivia is concerned, if you form it, they will play, her belief that the team will happen bringing all kinds of things together with a kind of existential centrifugal force.
It’s a joy to watch, and you can’t help but be swept up in her rampantly-infectious enthusiasm, even if, like Charlie, who has the aforementioned issues in abundance, you’re not entirely sure that what’s on offer is really what you want.
That matters not to Olivia, who never met a challenge she didn’t like, whose planning skills are beyond compare and whose approach to life pivots on the idea that you can rather than you can’t.
Next to her Charlie is a reclusive, Great Garbo-esque no-show, someone who clearly wants more out of life than she’s getting but isn’t quite sure how to go about it, and whether she even wants it if she can figure out a way to make it happen.
The meeting of Charlie and Olivia, around whom The Avant-Guards is built with snappy oneliners, sitcom-like pacing and heartfelt special moments and a deliciously-welcome queer sensibility, during the new students week at the college, is a meet-cute in every sense of the word.
Olivia is thrilled that someone has stopped by their table – and by “their”, we mean her friends and teammates Ashley (“I sing like Beyonce … Party like Rihanna … Ball like Lebron”), Tiffany, a New Age who works in a crystal shop on 7th, Nicole who’s the group’s resident cynic and quiet Jay – and not simply to ask for directions to cafeteria.
Before a clearly-reluctant Charlie can make her getaway, Olivia draws her in like a tractor beam, making a compelling case, in her ceaselessly-upbeat mind at least, to help her and her friends make history.
Granted, only Olivia sees things in those terms but she’s has a way of making what she wants and thinks should happen actually come to pass, and even though Charlie fights her, and the team, who go to extraordinary lengths to convince her she belongs with them (the sequence is amusing, both for the tactics employed, everyone’s palpable reluctance to make fools of themselves and Charlie’s face-palming disbelief at what they’re doing), eventually Charlie gets her team.
And we, lucky readers all, get one of the most engaging, fun, sweet and hilariously-touching comics to emerge in some time, carrying with it echoes, though not derivatively so, of Giant Days and Check Please to name just two.
The Avant-Guards succeeds because it gets, it totally gets, not just that new beginnings can be daunting in the extreme, but that to make them really work, and really all the life that follows, you need a close-knit group of friends, especially ones who share your sensibilities, right at your side and behind you.
It’s even more important when you’re queer, and part of a minority.
Sure, you’re out there living your life in the mainstream without fear or favour – well, that’s the attitude you project, anyway – but you’re always a little on the outer, not quite one of the gang; it’s not because your mainstream friends aren’t welcoming or don’t love you, it’s simply that there’s about your own people, your own queer people, that is different.
They provide a safe harbour in a sometimes-challenging world, and The Avant-Guards recognises and celebrates this implicitly, as does Charlie eventually, giving tremendous heart and soul to those gloriously-reassuring tale of societal misfits who set out to make history.
That they do it with a strong sense of their own selves, and some of the finest snappy dialogue since, well, Giant Days, only adds to the charm, and the artwork by Noah Hayes, which comes some pretty inventive panelling including, believe it or not, a basketball practice montage, is a delight from start to finish as is the colouring by Rebecca Nalty which gives The Avant-Guards the look of a well-crafted, expertly-executed rom-com.
Not that it is necessarily a rom-com, thought let’s be fair there is some URST at work, though very low level in the first three issues – issue #4 is on sale Wednesday 24 April – but it has some of the hallmarks of one, but more importantly, the sense of a coming of age story where a bunch of disparate souls discover they have a lot more in common than they thought.
Especially Olivia and Charlie who are the heart and soul of the narrative, two completely different people who, through the three issues, are fleshed out in substantially-enjoyable ways, moving them far beyond their buoyantly-joyous manic pixie girl and shutdown, taciturn loner with issues tropes with which they start issue #1.
Thing is, so well-crafted is The Avant-Guards from the very first panels that even though we are met with tropes and cliches aplenty, they never feel tired or worn; rather, Usdin has invested them with unexpected freshness, proving that it’s not the elements you use, but how you use them.
Usdin has used them exceptionally well, and I expect will continue to do so, offering up characters who are comedically and dramatically-heightened for sure, but who exude the realness of people struggling to fit in, find their place and make their mark.
But even more importantly, to feel like they belong, truly belong, to people that matter to them and to something bigger themselves.
They may act like it doesn’t matter, and let’s face it we all do that at times, the better not get hurt, but the truth is, and The Avant-Guards is happy to wear this particular soul-exposing heart on its highly-appealing sleeve, that it does matter, it matters a lot, and recognising and celebrating that is freeing for all of us, and makes for some damn fine, humorous, and emotionally-satisfying reading.