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Canadian Turns Mom's Yearbook Into Art

05/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

John Martz, an Ontario cartoonist, has drawn the entire student body of his mother's high school yearbook as cartoons, page to panel. The full version, which Martz debuted last summer at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, is browsable here, for sale here, and became a hot internet topic here.

But why in the name of horn-rimmed glasses and JFK lunchboxes would anybody draw this, and who would buy it? Graphic artists have been adapting reality into comics for decades, and since 2000 the trend has steadily accrued attention with newsy strips of the 9/11 Commission Report, a childhood during Iran's Islamic Revolution, and a journalist's experience in Palestine. But Martz's impulse dives so avidly into transcribing regular, bran-flavored reality that it makes American Splendor -- Harvey Pekar's Cleveland-based comic autobiography -- look like Star Wars.

On its own terms, though, the project is evocative. Something about sampling that convergence of lives -- a Venn diagram of bygone adolescence -- has always had a voyeuristic (even poignant) appeal, and this is no less true of Martz's blandly exact adaptation.

At first, it seems cutely boring -- no blood, no bombs, no refugees or famous lines -- just kids, with their goofy glasses, a few hours before their half-baked (probably in both senses) after-school programs. But high school, like any period of life, is mundane, most of the time, and never more so than when you're holding a team plaque while someone straightens your tie. And never more than in high school do we so nervously rely on caricatures to interpret ourselves and each other. In a way, slimming the details down to basic lines and silly curves reflects how much high school was, then and now, a world of the same reductions.

Excelsior High is a fiction, set in "fictional Bristol Country Secondary School in the fictional Staedtler, Ontario," but the students are drawn and renamed from an actual yearbook, belonging, one presumes, to an actual mother. Martz (alias Robot Johnny) bills his mass-portraiture as an exercise, but it's also a prodigious visual study of a small universe of personalities, now long dissipated to cubicles, fortunes, graves.