So the Ignatz Award nominees were announced last week, and two comics from my reading list were on it: Witchy and O Human Star, both extremely deserving works by skilled (and queer!) authors. There was another comic nominated that I was less thrilled about – so much so that I felt the need to go out of my way to write a review of it. If that makes me petty, so be it; I’ve got an axe to grind with Super Mutant Magic Academy.
SMMA takes the action and adventure out of Hogwarts and X-Men and examines the idea of a fantasy school as if it were just like the shitty high school you went to. I love this idea, and for a long time I loved Super Mutant Magic Academy. The kid with laser powers uses them to vandalize the school; a depressed teen can’t even work up the will to make food with magic; the super-smart girl uses her enormous brain to better hate herself. It satirizes both genre fiction school and real life school by comparing them to each other, and this can at time be extremely incisive and funny.
But the trouble with satire is that it’s so easy to miss the mark. The relentless cynicism of SMMA wears on me now, and the comic has taken on an almost formulaic approach: five panels of one character philosophizing or arguing a point, then a final panel where they contradict themself. Every character is a hypocrite, and it’s frankly long since crossed the line from “uncomfortably close to your real high school experiences” to “painfully bitter and edgy”, which only the most pessimistic could call “realistic”.
Tamaki also uses jokes that mock legitimate issues of social justice, which is the other shoe I’m always waiting for when it comes to satire. When a character brilliantly shuts some asshole down, only to have the punchline be that they’re full of shit, it’s incredibly disheartening.
The worst is the (apparently only) queer character, Marsha, whose secret crush on her best friend Wendy is a running theme throughout the comic. Marsha is so repressed it hurts to read, and that repression results in her lashing out defensively at people, Wendy included. This wouldn’t even be so bad if Marsha weren’t also portrayed as a total creep, sneaking peeks up Wendy’s skirt and even stealing her goddamn hairbrush and sleeping with it.
“But Wisp, we all do/did awful things in high school that we later regret, it’s just realistic!” I dunno about you buddy but I managed to make it through high school without without stealing anyone’s hairbrush, and it just so happens that this sort of thing – secret, creepy, unwanted, obsessive romantic attention – is what homophobic straight girls expect from queer girls, and is a real and awful stereotype that they have to deal with. So, big ups to Super Mutant Magic Academy for encouraging that idea.
Do I think Tamaki’s work is irredeemable? No, if I did I’d give it an F. But I don’t think it deserves any awards for its clumsy satire or its harmful queer representation. There are many more deserving creators out there, and it’s frankly sad to see things like this get nominated while comics that are better both technically and emotionally get ignored.
Final verdict: If you’re a jaded asshole who thinks the worst of people, regardless of the oppressions they face, you’ll like this. If you like dry witty humor, there are a few gems in here if you’re willing to dig.