Writer and Artist: Declan Miller
Stick Mob / Gestalt Publishing / Indigenous Literacy Foundation, 2021
This comic, written and drawn by Declan Miller, is set in a high school in Alice Springs, a large town in central Australia. There are two main characters: lonely Pam, who lives with her uncle; and Ross, a dorky boy with a crush on Pam.
One cannot help but feel sorry for Ross. Ross is in that icky phase of school where the desire to express affection for someone is a form of emotional immolation. Day-dreaming, Ross expresses his frustration and desire by way a goofy picture of him and Pam together, but makes the mistake of doing this in class. Ross’ teacher, Mr Farmhouse, takes the paper from Ross’ desk, thinking it is school work. A tussle evolves between Ross and Farmhouse, resulting in the paper slipping to the floor. Pam recovers it and learns Ross’ awkward secret.
But this is not a romance comic. Pam is haunted by apparitions. First, we meet a skeletal figure in a top hat, dressed way too warmly for daytime Alice Springs, who visits Pam both in her dreams and out of the corner of her eye at school. In the beginning of the first book, this grinning nightmare pushes Pam into an abyss – she wakes up screaming. Then, Pam is ambushed by three spectral school children who might be MacBeth‘s witches. The witches each offer Pam what she wants: to be liked, to be noticed, to be popular. These are sinister creatures who, in adjacent panels, are sometimes blind, and sometimes stare at Pam with a single predatorial eye. Mr Miller does a wonderful job of conveying genuine creepiness to what otherwise might look like three suspicious kids with some attitude lurking beyond the school’s oval.
Despite the overlay horror, it is the characterisation which carries the story. Mr Miller does this with nuance. Pam’s uncle sentimentally notes to himself that Pam “reminds me of her father. A little too much, haha.” Where Pam’s father is exactly is not explained, and Mr Miller knows not to tie that open thread into a knot. Pam’s uncle is clearly a good man, a curmudgeon padding around the house in fluffy slippers, who is raising his niece with brusque but deep devotion. Mr Farmhouse, on the other hand, questions why he bothered to become a teacher when Ross quite properly questions the aesthetics of Farmhouse’s beard. Farmhouse is there mostly as comedic relief, but even he is adeptly given some depth. As for Ross, he eventually asks Pam out on a date to a concert, but only after being taunted by boys at school: “Yo Ross! Is it true about you and Pam?” one sneers. “Yeah bro, is it true?” the other tag-teams, grinning as they slide embarrassment through Ross like a blunt needle. Ross is brave enough to overcome his own insecurities and the mockery of the boys in his class, and finally expresses himself. (We have been there, many years ago. We could not help but be proud of Ross.)
This is a thoroughly enjoyable first-outing by Mr Miller. We look forward to seeing how Mixed Feelings plays out in the second volume. This issue is available directly from Gestalt Publishing https://www.gestaltcomics.com/shelf/mixed-feelings-book-1/ and on Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/mixed-feelings-declan-miller/book/9780648741381.html