Mike Holmes has been doing a lot of work in comics, from illustrating graphic adaptations of Tui Sutherland’s Wings Of Fire series to collaborating with Gene Luen Yang on the six-part Secret Coders graphic novel/programming primers. But he hasn’t yet done a full story of his own, until now.
Holmes has produced one of the most affecting portal fantasy stories I’ve ever read in My Own World; as is common the story type, the hero (a not terribly bad off but disaffected youth) finds a way into a fabulous world away from his problems. You’ve seen it a million times before, the Narnia series being the ur-example.
But protagonist Nathan isn’t in a world of fantasy beasts and people and great quests. In his realm there’s him and … not much else, really. Time doesn’t pass, others aren’t there, there’s a primordial goo he can shape into constructs or even facsimile life, but it’s basically all him. He’s not escaping to adventure, he’s escaping from the tedium and drudgery of not fitting in and (although he maybe doesn’t realize it) an incipient tragedy about to befall him. He has absolute mastery of everything that exists in his pocket universe — think hard-light Minecraft responding to his hands and thoughts — but there isn’t anybody there except him.
Before the actual magic, Holmes does maybe an even better job of portraying a different kind of magic — the everyday magic of a time a few decades ago when kids could roam as long as they were back when Mom said, there a trail through the woods might lead to a secret spot with gathered detritus to make it cool; Illicit fireworks or nudie mags a bonus. But secret hangouts in the woods only work if you’re there with friends and Nathan’s kind of short on those.
The tough kids and sorta-friends of his older brother, and the older brothers of his sorta-friends don’t really have time for him. His parents don’t really understand that setting him up on playdates doesn’t really work any more. And so he’s back to his own world, where everything stops except his hunger, leaving to make snack runs and return and heedless of the fact that he’s not where he’s supposed to be and returning anyway. There’s a sense of addiction to a place where reality is subject to whim that I don’t recall seeing before. Nathan’s not processing it in those terms from his POV, but it’s there.
And because Holmes is very, very good at storytelling, he’s not afraid to make Nathan a bit unpleasant, as surely almost all pre-teens are¹. He’s self-focused, worships his older brother (while ignoring Very Large Truths about him), and heedless of the feelings of others. Almost pure impulse and resentment at not getting to do what he wants to, Nathan rings true for anybody that remembers what they were like at nine or ten years old with an honest eye.
The escape has its cost once Nathan ends up back in the real world — the timeless time has to be paid for, and unpleasant truths he didn’t know (or tried to didn’t know) are still there. He can’t put them off, he can’t stop the wheeling of the world, he’s going to have to confront it and grow up.
My Own World is a deeply melancholy story, one best suited for readers that can look back on being Nathan’s age rather than actually being Nathan’s age. All of the awkwardness and discontent you remember feeling when much younger are brought to the fore and laid out for you to remember your own escapes into your own worlds, and how the things you sought to escape were still waiting for you when you returned.
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¹ Teens bring their own unpleasantness to the table, but they aren’t the focus here.