Uglies: Shay’s Story (Del Rey)

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Scott Westerfeld adapts his bestselling teen novel series into a manga-styled side story starring one of his most appealing ancillary characters.

 

 

208 pgs. B&W; $10.99
(W: Scott Westerfeld and Devin Grayson; A: Steven Cummings)
 
In the world of Uglies, being pretty isn’t a privilege, it’s an automatic rite of passage. All kids are born into ugliness as citizens of Uglyville, where they learn how to live among society and get all their hoverboard-enabled rowdiness out of the way. Once their sweet sixteen hits, though, every kid gets “the Surge,” a drastic operation that transforms all the Uglies into stunningly perfect Pretties that are then allowed to move to the stunningly perfect Pretty Town.
 
It all seems like a pretty easy gig, but the rebellious Shay has her doubts. For starters, she doesn’t particularly think her or her Ugly friends are exactly “ugly”…and they aren’t, really; they just kind of look like normal kids. And as a few sneak visits to Pretty Town reveal to her, being a Pretty isn’t as desirable as it might seem at first blush: all the Pretties seem pretty interchangeably vapid and blank-faced, and they don’t seem to recall any memories of their time as Littlies or Uglies, an era of her life that Shay isn’t exactly excited to lose. She discovers all this after meeting Zane, a pretty studly Ugly who heads a group of Crims (or criminals) looking to avoid the Surge and head into adulthood as Ugly as god made them. Through Zane, she meets the even studlier David, who heads a resistance group called the Rusties that live a self-sufficient existence out in the wilderness of the Smoke. Shay wants to go to the Smoke but she can’t bear the thought of going alone, so she tries to convince her best friend Tally to join her. But Tally’s presence causes tension: could she be a spy sent by the Specials, the Surge enforcement squadron?
 
Based on Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series of teen novels, this graphic novel adaptation (credited to Westerfeld and ‘90s DC Comics mainstay Devin Grayson) takes an interesting approach by telling an original story…of sorts. In the original novels, the story followed Tally as she wrestled with whether or not to betray her friend Shay and her newfound friends at the Smoke, but in Shay’s Story, Tally stays on the periphery because, well, this is Shay’s story. From what I can gather (not having read the original novels), it’s basically covering the same time period as the first Uglies novel from a different perspective, covering some of the same tracks (basically whenever Shay and Tally are in a room together) but mostly filling in blanks that were implied but not explicitly explored in the novel. So many comics adaptations of successful film and book franchises are content with either straight adaptation or with just writing a new, typically inferior story starring the same characters, but seeing the author revisit his own work and fill in the cracks is a pretty novel approach.
 
As previously mentioned, I was not familiar with Westerfeld’s novels prior to reading Shay’s Story but that was, fortunately, a fairly minor issue, as the comic’s script (written, I assume, by Grayson) manages to succinctly establish Shay as an interesting character and introduce the major bullet points of the Uglies world in the first 25 pages or so, leaving the bulk of the book to deal with plot machinations and Shay’s own hemming and hawing over whether to go through with the Surge or not. Grayson adapts well to the writing style of a teen novel: her script is breezy and packed with in-world jargon without being buried in it. The central theme—as Westerfeld puts it, “that being normal is just fine—that we don’t need cosmetic surgery to be happy”—is an obvious one and is delivered in a fairly ham-fisted fashion, but I get the feeling that that’s just the cynical adult in me talking. The book certainly reads like something I would imagine liking at that age (or like any number of shojo manga that explore similar territory), and even as an adult who has already learned the lessons that Uglies is trying to teach me, I was certainly never bored while reading it.
 
The central appeal of Shay’s Story is Shay the character, and Shay wouldn’t be nearly as appealing if her every expression wasn’t captured so perfectly by the script and the art. The definitive MVP of the creative team, artist Steven Cummings is a relative newcomer (his résumé stretches over a decade but is mostly isolated fill-in issues of various DC and Marvel comics and one volume of the Tokyopop OEL manga Pantheon High) but his skills here are impressive. Cummings is that rare American artist who actually nails the manga style rather than just creating a reasonable facsimile of it, giving his characters a realistic-yet-slightly-manga-stylized look right in line with artists like Oh! Great (Air Gear), Hiroki Otsuka (Boys of Summer), and Takeshi Miyazawa (Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane) that your author is a total sucker for. Cummings’ characters are distinctive and expressive, and his layouts are as breezy as Grayson’s script.
 
Del Rey’s presentation of the book is solid, using a slightly larger trim size than your typical manga (slightly larger, even, than used for Del Rey’s mature readers line like Suzuka and Basilisk) to give Cummings’ art plenty of room to shine. Though there is no mention of a “volume one” anywhere in Shay’s Story, it ends with a whopper of a “to be continued…” and the promise of a new volume, Uglies: Cutters, due out in December. Also included at the end of the book is a nine-page sketchbook section, including Cummings’ concept art alongside comments from Westerfeld.
 
Really, the only major annoyance with the book (and whose decision this was—Del Rey’s, Westerfeld’s, or Grayson’s—I have no idea) is that this 192-page story is split into a preposterous 23 chapters, some as short as three pages long. Basically every time there’s a change in scene, there’s a new chapter title page that simply contains a map of the world with a moving target on it. The pages add nothing and break up the momentum of the narrative unnecessarily. That’s a fairly ignorable complaint, though, and not enough to detract from all the things that Westerfeld and company get right. In the end, Uglies: Shay’s Story is a fairly simplistic story, but it’s strong characterization and attractive art should serve the audience of the original novels more than just Pretty well. | Jason Green
 
Click here for a preview of Uglies: Shay’s Story, courtesy of Del Rey/Random House!
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