Comics for Summer Camp

Troop 142 - Mike  Dawson Chiggers - Hope Larson P.S. I Hate It Here!: Kids' Letters from Camp - Diane Falanga
Like many Minnesotans, as a kid I spent a week or so in early August attending a summer camp, doing all of the typical things; swimming, sitting around a campfire, hiking, learning about nature, playing capture the flag, and waiting until nobody else was in the showers so I can sneak in alone. In my case, it was a Boy Scout camp in the woods of western Wisconsin, tucked away on the shores of a large lake. I recall having a lot of fun on these adventures, but of course, there were also some less fun things as well. Still, I would not mind being able to take a week off for camping more often these days. Recently, I checked out a few comics that really brought back this time, bringing with it both nostalgia and recognition.


Taken together, Troop 142: A Graphic Novel by Mike Dawson and Chiggers by Hope Larson offer some interesting parallels in spite of looking through the summer camp experience through the eyes of different genders. Both explore changes in friendships and personalities in this alien environment of camp, bullying, and a feeling of not fitting into a current situation, and I definitely found much to recall in each of them. Troop 142, though, is the more “adult” of the two, with some pretty rough, realistic language and rather bleak message, while Chiggers takes a more laid back, even magic realist look at camp life, and is a bit more appropriate for younger readers. I do enjoy the fact that for both of them, there is no real closure, no cut and dry “ending,” as befits a single week in a kid's’ life.    



In Troop 142, a ragtag group of boys and their fathers head out to summer camp in the woods, circa 1995. Loosely following the viewpoint of the rather ineffectual father of two of the boys, we witness tensions rise among in the troop, as petty arguments, bullying, “troublemaking,” and other minor disasters reduce morale to an all time low.


I, too, was a Boy Scout attending summer camp in 1995 and so much of the world as painted by Dawson seemed very, very familiar. While nothing as extreme as the miserable group making up Troop 142, the elements were all there; the ludicrously gross conversations, the titles of the books everyone was reading, the merit badge breakdowns. I was a casual scout, for sure, only there for camping and hanging out with friends, tolerating (barely) the tempests in a teapot of adult disagreements, the uniforms, the piddling rules, the casual dropping of racial epithets by scout leaders. The dichotomies between the Scout Laws and the actions of the scouts and scout leaders alike, and the hypocrisy often evident among the authorities, especially as based on sexual orientation and religion seem written into the rules themselves. Things are changing, definitely, but it has been awhile since I’ve been involved.  



Chiggers, unlike Troop 142, features a mixed gender summer camp unaffiliated with scouting and focuses on a group of girls, rather than the whole sausage fest of Boy Scout camping. Still, the parallels between the two books as friends go at each other in the confines of a tent or a cabin during a week of living together. When Abby returns to camp, her best camp friend Rose is too busy for her, she finds herself crushing majorly on Rose’ geeky cousin Teal, and her annoying bunkmate is sent home after a case of chiggers in a particularly uncomfortable area (reminds me of my own eternal hatred of ticks). The mysterious, elegant Shasta, who has been struck by lightning, has an 18 year old boyfriend, is part Cherokee, among other tales, takes her place. Shasta and Abby become friends, even as Abby’s other friends find Shasta intolerable.  Minor betrayals and jealousies threaten these relationships,  Larson’s work is a bit more hopeful, though, as Shasta and Abby make up, and Abby hopes to hang out with Teal more. There is also a strange, semi-magical element as Shasta is continually haunted by strange, ball-lightning like phenomena, which seems only she and Abby can see. Weird things do happen while camping, of course.   



Finally, it’s always fun to read found and submitted material, and Diane Falanga’s P.S. I Hate it Here is one of the funniest, and most interesting entries in the genre. This one really brought back some memories as well, and is definitely a fun thing to flip through in late summer, as the buzzing of cicadas begin turning into the chirping of crickets as the season comes to a close. Along with this episode of This American Life, you have everything you need to revisit those heady, kind of stinky times.


*Theme music for entry: "Knowledge" by Operation Ivy, covered by The Aquabats!