Cleverly inked and masterfully told, Flamer by Mike Curato is a life-affirming story about finding the power within.
It's the summer of 1995. Fourteen-year-old Aiden Navarro is at boy scout camp, dreading the start of public high school. He fears he'll be bullied for being Filipino, fat and gay, as he was in Catholic school. He's been told to "man up," that his voice is effeminate. He's called a drama queen, a "Chinese faggot," "not normal." Yet, despite his confusing feelings for Elias, a fellow troop member, Aiden tells himself he isn't gay: "It's a sin. Gay people do bad things. And I'm not a bad person." Aiden bonds with Elias, with whom being himself seems possible. But when Elias rebuffs his advance, Aiden thinks everything is crashing down around him. Feeling lost, alone and unsafe, he struggles to see a way forward.
By carefully weaving in Aiden's religiosity and the intolerance within the scouting community, Curato reveals how dangerous internalized homophobia is. Aiden, who hopes altar serving will earn him extra credit (with God, of course), dreams he's going to hell. Yet it's with the scouts that Aiden begins expressing himself--sashaying "Valley Girl style" around a campfire or asking to create a female Dungeons & Dragons character. Curato (Little Elliot, Big City) illustrates Aiden's inextinguishable personality by depicting him with long eyelashes and flowing hair in scenes that otherwise reflect reality, thereby outwardly representing his nonconforming spirit. Drawing primarily in black and white, Curato reserves color for emotionally heated scenes, using flickering flames as a poignant metaphor as Aiden works to understand his inner fire. Both heartbreaking and joyous, Flamer acknowledges the brutal weight of hatred, yet inspires the courage to live. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer