Reviews: Playing Out… one Manchester summer, perfectly observed through the eyes of the young
I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything that so perfectly captures the voice of youth as well as Playing Out does. It’s a perfect evocation of what it means to be navigating the difficult early teens and a beautiful, clever, and playfully uplifting reassurance that the kids really are alright.
This, quite simply, is an adored thing by everyone in Bruton Mansions. And we’ve waited a long time for this one.
Jim Medway’s brilliant Crab Lane Crew in the DFC Comic was what first alerted the Bruton household to his work, or more specifically had Molly pointing out what made his stuff so good. Because at first I didn’t get it; too little going on, where was the story? etc etc. But Molly told me where I was going wrong (she’s good at that) and delighted in telling me that it was perfect, the characters doing nothing but hang out, doing kid things, talking about kid things, just as she did. She saw herself in Medway’s strip, and if that isn’t the perfect definition of what a children’s comic should be I don’t know what is.
Fast forward to 2011, and we’ve Jim Medway as an overnight house guest, as he was spending a couple of days enthusing Year 5 and 6 in the school I work at about comics with his excellent Creating Comics course. One of the things he brought up to show us was Playing Out, unfinished at the time, but Molly, Louise and myself all spent time oohhhing over it, and I’ve been following its progress ever since.
If Crab Lane Crew was a perfect capturing of the life of an 8/9-year old, Playing Out does exactly the same for those oh-so-nearly teens you see wandering the streets all summer holiday.
Jamal, Kieran, both 12 and at big school, plus Connor, Kieron’s 10-year old brother (that’s them above) are most likely the sort of kids you’ll see at a mall or roaming those streets and tut at their noisy ways, their rudeness, their clothes. But just what do you do in the long summer holidays when you’ve little money and loads of time?
You look at them on the cover; their body language, Kieron and his ever-present bike, Jamal punching out the Hello Kitty balloon, and you might think you have the measure of Playing Out; something grim and urban, all poverty and crime, a teen version of the Specials’ Ghost Town to accompany a tale of chavvy urban decay.
But you’d be ever so wrong. This is actually a wonderfully, universally positive thing.
The kids are typical youths, good kids with not that good a background, doing their best to fill their time, resolutely optimistic about their world, pissed off occasionally by each other, by schoolmates, and most of all by adults looking at them with scorn and suspicion. But determined, despite all the things against them, to have a good time, determined to make the best of their holidays.
Despite this they can’t help but be trapped within their demographic, the pressures of growing up too strong, so alongside the childish enjoyment there’s a pressure to be older, but for all their posing, all the attempts to be cool and moody, the enthusiasm bubbles up to the surface once more.
Young Connor’s probably the worst for that; he’s not really managed to perfect the air of casual not-bothered-ness his brother and Jamal pull off most of the time. His joy and delight at making a little paper mask at one of the craft stalls in town is both sweet and strangely emotional, as you realise you’re looking at the very last moments of childhood before teen years transform the boy.
Medway captures every nuance, every moment, every little turn of phrase, every bit of body language, and he does it with the skill of an expert social anthropologist. This could, quite easily, be turned into a scholarly work on the nature of a child’s transformation to a teen. As it is, it’s simply a brilliantly observed comic, beautifully drawn, and something I think you’ll find it very easy to fall in love with.
Playing Out, quite simply is perfect; a perfect evocation of what it’s like to be 12 in a city, a perfect moment in that transition from kid to teen, a perfect distillation for us adults of our childhood, a perfect representation of the voice of these children, accessible to us oldies but even better, acknowledged by our children as the reality of their lives.
Medway has reached into urban society and delivered the truth, and delivered it with style, beauty and truth…..
You see, there it is; the putting on the big man act when the emos come near and that perfect observation of Kieron’s raised hoodie, Jamal’s instinctive response to girls – the hoody goes up, the act goes on.
And it carries on throughout Playing Out – all of those perfectly observed moments; the preening and showing off when the older girls say hello, and the annoying manner in which the older girls always think you’re annoying but your younger brother is ever so cute. The wandering around the shops, knowing that most likely you’ll be treated with suspicion and kicked out. The fascination with ridiculously expensive trainers, the even stranger attraction to shops selling knives (seriously, does anyone old enough to buy one ever go in those shops?).
And conversely, when they nip into the Apple store and the salesman treats them with kindness and respect, taking time to chat and show them how to do things, Jamal finds himself storming out, unable to cope with the kindness.
“He was laughing at us. We can’t afford none of all that lot.”
“He never was. He was nice.”
“He was laughin’ at us.”
It’s perfect, this confusion in a child used to being classed as a problem, I saw it all the time in the school I worked at in Birmingham; loads of good kids scared of showing any weakness, scared of letting their guard down, always expecting to be seen in the worst light, and perplexed and antagonistic to those that seek to help them.
Playing Out captures all this; a perfect observation of the difficulties of f dealing with these kids, a perfect observation of how it is to actually be these kids.
And there we have all the power of Playing Out. A child will read this and empathise with it, an adult will read this and understand, will see themselves in the past doing these things, will see themselves possibly in the present committing some of these mistakes.
And yet all through Playing Out there’s a deliciously real observed comedy as these kids wander through their summer. For all the heartbreak there’s a simple observational realism going on. When it looks at how they deal with friends, acquaintances, fellow students, even seeing sir in an unexpected moment, it all rings true, and it’s all done with such gentle humour:
Evocative and nostalgic for adults, Playing Out is that rare thing, something that works perfectly as a reminder of our youth but also talks directly to children, without being condescending, without talking down to them.
Playing Out will be making a reappearance on both Molly and my best of year lists, but then again, I knew that since first laying eyes on it. It’s a magnificent children’s book that speaks directly to those making the difficult transition from child to teen (Molly will tell you that) and it’s a magnificent adult’s book about childhood we remember, and that’s Playing Out’s true brilliance, to be great to both child, teen and adult, each group getting something true and wonderful from it.
Playing Out is published by Blank Slate Books and is available wherever great comic books are sold, including the FPI webstore and all our retail branches. Cos we’re ace.