My Riot. Written by Rick Spears. Art by Emmett Helen. Published by Oni Press.
I don’t think I am being controversial in say this, but punk is usually not represented in a meaningful way when put in a young adult context. It’s all surface level and melded in a way that’s made palatable to a broad audience. To that effect, it often means that the aesthetic qualities are borrowed or the idea of teenage rebellion is touched upon. Luckily, there’s the new graphic novel My Riot, which explores the themes of punk rock and riot grrrl, portraying them through a young adult lens.
Set in 1991, Valarie lives a quiet life as a seventeen-year-old in Washington, D.C. She enjoys ballet and has just gotten her first job. But her life changes forever when she discovers punk rock and the riot grrrl scene. With this newly discovered danger, she forms a band and discovers who she really is.
While it won’t appeal to grizzled old punks, My Riot isn’t afraid to discuss abrasive topics raised by the riot grrrl movement. What do I mean by abrasive? The graphic novel doesn’t sugar coat things, exploring themes such as body image, sex, misogyny, escapism, and more. As a result, readers are not presented an Avril Lavigne shine but instead something much closer to Bikini Kill.
While the graphic novel touches on a lot of themes, they all orbit the idea that you shouldn’t be defined by other people’s or society’s preconceived notions. Valarie is bombarded by messages about how she is supposed to act from her parents, what her weight is meant to be, and how she is meant to act in front of boys. Her discovery of punk gives her an outlet to vent her frustrations and find a community that accepts her and her friends.
Cartoonist Emmett Helen gives the graphic novel an aesthetic that has a punk rock feel. The look and feel are heavily inspired by photocopied zines and gig posters. There’s only a handful of colours at a time and are complimented with halftone patterns and subtle textures.
This is topped off with loose linework for the characters, panel borders, and environments. This allows My Riot to more approachable to those not overly familiar with the punk vibes. It’s what gives the comic its energy too. It allows characters to be expressive or make punk rock shows feel more chaotic.
Colour plays a big part in the look and feel of the comic. It’s used as an easy way to code a particular world that the characters are experiencing. The punk rock world is a deep navy, while the more conservative world that Valerie is from is a warm pink. It gives My Riot another way to contrast these two worlds subtly. When you read this, pay attention to what colour she is when she begins to immerse herself in this new world and when that shifts.
My Riot is a solid graphic novel that’s all about not being defined by other’s expectations and learning to love yourself. It has a cool look and feel that totally makes sense in the context of the world it explores and doesn’t shy away from tough topics. If you’re looking for a YA read that’s a bit dangerous and has something to say, then check this one out.