Review by Karl Verhoven
With the autobiographical recollections of Smile working so well for Raina Telgemeier, she took a second step back into her own past for Sisters, initially almost the original warning parable of being careful what you wish for. Some sisters bond instantly, and then there’s Raina and Amara. After the young Raina bugged her parents for some while, they duly delivered a sister, except what developed wasn’t the relationship she envisaged. Whether historically accurate or some form of delayed therapeutic revenge, Amara is portrayed as intolerant, provocative and a complete brat on occasions, while Raina is largely saintly until provoked, with a mild dose of the selfishness common to all children.
Throughout her books, Telgemeier has a wonderful sense of comic timing, knowing how to build her moments to the end of the page, with the punchline delivered on the next. Visually rather than through words she relates what a comfort a walkman was in blotting out the world when a teenager. Turn the page, and we also learn it blotted out her mother singing Kumbaya around the campfire. The parade of unfortunate pets is the closest she’ll come to dark humour while producing all-ages material.
Sisters begins at the start of a trip to Colorado for a wider family reunion, natural tensions increased by being trapped for a five day drive in a camper van. The ongoing present day story is complemented by flashes back to the past, indicated by a form of sepia coloured paper for the surroundings. We see Amara is seemingly the more talented and ambitious artist, but that right from the start she didn’t work out as the pleasant companion Raina envisaged. As the book continues it encompasses a broader view of family. The reunion is pleasingly supplied, some children mixing naturally whatever their age, others finding themselves somehow between groups. It’s the one time the Telgemeier sisters have the potential to be drawn closer together, but the elder Raina’s overtures are transparent to Amara. “You’re not being nice”, she observes, “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself”. It’s also Amara who proves the more astute, having picked up on what’s been happening around her while Raina’s been shutting the world out with her walkman.
Interestingly, there is no real ending to Sisters. Readers are invited into a family’s lives and drift back out again enriched for the experience, but with some questions still hanging. Some online research will probably provide the answers, but they’re not essential to the title theme, an experience provided with authenticity and good humour. That applies to all Telgemeier’s graphic novels, by the way.