Netflix had a surprise success with The End Of The Fucking World, the adaptation of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel of the same name made in partnership with U.K.’s Channel 4. Late in 2018 came the announcement that Netflix will adapt another Forsman graphic novel, 2017’s I Am Not Okay With This (Fantagraphics). It has been billed as a coming-of-age story, but it’s more than that too. The book is filled with delicately balanced tensions stretched cover to cover, immersed in the unsteady world of a 15-year-old girl deeply unhappy with herself and her life.
Sydney struggles with nearly every person she has to deal with day to day. That’s not uncommon for 15-year-old girls or for stories about them, but one of the things that sets Sydney and I Am Not Okay With This apart is the fact that she is an unreliable and often unsympathetic character. Her narration is rooted in a lot of the self-absorption that comes with her age more than anything else, but Forsman gives the reader insight into things that Sydney doesn’t know or doesn’t recognize. Seeing the struggles of the other people in her life, especially her mother and best friend, casts Sydney as something of a bad guy in her own story. It’s not that she’s always intentionally cruel, though she does have moments of selfishness. It feels very standard for her age and frustration.
Forsman’s simple art echoes Charles Schulz’s or Dik Browne’s newspaper comic-strip style, with small vertical oval eyes and big round heads, knobby knees, and oversized feet. It lends an interesting contrast to the darkness of the story Forsman tells. Sydney is deeply unhappy and mad all the time, visualized by her gauntness and choice to wear massive boots. Her mother and best friend are struggling with very serious issues, the sorts of things The Peanuts and Beetle Bailey wouldn’t touch. Driving the story’s darkness is Sydney’s anger manifesting itself outside her body with a strange darkness that can harm others: anything from giving her best friend’s jerk boyfriend a headache to doing more serious damage. Sydney explains that her father, who is dead, had something similarly dark in him, and the role of this power in their lives becomes increasingly heavy and clear.
Tensions of I Am Not Okay With This are external to the book. Sydney’s story is deeply rooted in the realities of being a 15-year-old girl specifically, with sexual assault and the intricacies of relationships between female friends and a mother and daughter at the center of much of the story. The awareness that this was written by someone who doesn’t share Sydney’s experiences raises questions; none of those questions are insurmountable or impossible to ignore, but they color the book with a sense of discomfort. If it weren’t for Sydney’s powers—if she hurt people with her fists instead of with her preternatural abilities—it might be easier to ignore the tension between Forsman’s identity and Sydney’s. But Sydney talks extensively about the darkness that she and her father shared. It’s a sometimes elegant way to portray mental illness, particularly since Sydney’s father was a veteran and seemed to succumb to his fears and the darkness inside him. But by weaponizing that darkness to hurt men specifically, Forsman effectively weaponizes both Sydney and the mental illness that the darkness seems to be standing in for, and her father’s PTSD. Almost nothing that Sydney says or experiences is very far outside the norm for 15-year-old girls, which is the point. But her powers, and what she uses them to do, is deeply troubling and that raises questions about what Forsman thinks is the source of that darkness: her identity or her mental illness. The book offers no easy answers, but it’s unclear if Forsman is aware that the questions are being asked at all.