Emi was always kind of a geek by default, but this summer her geeky friends have headed off to a “young executives retreat.” Emi decides that’s not her scene, so she’s stuck at home in the Toronto ‘burbs, baby-sitting for her American neighbors, the Cutheberts. (The dad is big and blond; his grin is too broad, he talks too loud, and he plays lots of tennis. Hee.) Her whole summer changes when she sees a dreadlocked girl start dancing and singing in the middle of the mall. She’s advertising the “Freak Show” at a place called the Factory, downtown. Even though the art is black and white, you can just see all the bright colors and glitter in her outfit.
Emi goes, of course, and is caught up in the performance art world of the Freaks. As she discovers, “not being noteworthy at the Factory was kind of like not existing.” And Emi wants to exist, to be noticed. So she reinvents herself as a performance artist, using her grandmother’s clothes from her career as a dancer, and Mrs. Cuthebert’s diary of her miserable marriage. Emi’s act is wildly successful, but there’s only so long before her deceptions — and those of all the other characters — unravel.
My favorite thing about Emiko Superstar is the quiet, casual way it breaks down stereotypes. It’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story with a female protagonist — Emi doesn’t have romantic feelings for Poppy (the dreadlocked dancer), but she’s in love with her MPDG sparkle all the same. The family Emi baby-sits for is clearly having problems — but it’s the wife who eventually leaves for another woman, not the husband. While it can be hard to tell if characters in comics are fat, Emi is certainly round — and when she makes her grand entrance in her grandmother’s skimpy ’60s dress, she’s also hot. The story and art make that clear, and never make any excuses for her body. And of course, Emi’s biracial, but it’s just one of the things she happens to be; the story is about other things.
I remember all too well being on the fringe of a group that was just a little older, a lot cooler, and a whole lot more flamboyantly weird than I was. Their dramas — the cutting, the girlfriend who threatened suicide, the friend with a drug problem — seemed glamorous from the outside. I wanted the drama, because it appeared inextricably linked with the gloriously free self-expression. They were my Manic Pixie Dream Girls (and Guys). I love that when Emi is accepted by the Factory girls and goes behind the scenes, she sees the drama for the sadness that it is — but that doesn’t mean that she has to give up her artistic side, or even stop being friends with this group. This book is a clear-eyed, unromantic love letter to freaks and the ordinary people trying to find their place among them.