Book: “Child Star” by Box Brown
Publishing Info: First Second, June 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: Child Star is a fictional documentary-style graphic novel about how growing up in the spotlight robs young actors of a true childhood.
Child star Owen Eugene had it all: a hit sitcom on prime time, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a memoir on the bestseller list. The secret to his success was his talent for improvisation . . . and his small size. On screen he made the whole world laugh, but behind the scenes his life was falling apart. Hollywood ate him alive.
Inspired by real-life child stars, bestselling author Brian “Box” Brown created Owen Eugene, a composite character whose tragic life is an amalgam of 1980s pop culture.
Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this graphic novel!
My love for “The Lost Boys” meant that when Corey Haim died I sat down and cried very deeply. He (and his costar and friend Corey Feldman) were two child stars who were plagued by personal demons that were brought on by fame (and all the bad things and people that come with it), so his death by overdose was tragic, but not surprising. He was just one in a long line of child stars whose life turned to tragedy. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t thinking of Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Gary Coleman, and so many others as I read Box Brown’s new graphic novel “Child Star”. Which is, of course, the point.
This is kind of new for Brown, as up until now his graphic novels have been non-fiction. “Child Star” is written in a faux documentary style, so the approach feels like a ‘True Hollywood Story’ kind of tale. I definitely found it interesting that even in a fictional take (though arguably this is the life of Gary Coleman, fictionalized) Brown approaches the content in a just the facts manner. We are told the story of Owen Eugene, a child actor whose popularity exploded due to a 1980s family sitcom, and his small stature as caused by a genetic disorder. We see Eugene’s rise and fall through the eyes of family, friends, and colleagues, and trace how his life in Hollywood changed, and ruined, his life. I really enjoyed the documentary style put on the page, and liked how it truly felt like I was watched a seedy VH1 TV show as I read it. From his parents who clearly took advantage of their son’s fame to the predatory higher ups in Hollywood to the people who knew Eugene due to personal and professional settings, Brown creates a very well thought out, and incredibly tragic, tale of a person all based on the perceptions of those around him, and the reliability and unreliability of their words. Owen Eugene as a character is always a bit of a mystery because of this secondary source template, but I think that we get a nuanced and complex characterization, even if it’s being told through the eyes of others. He has a lot of analogs in real life, and while Gary Coleman is clearly the main influence the sad truth is that so many child stars suffer similar paths and fates that you can see many others inside of this tale.
There is a certain nostalgia on these pages to go with the pathos, and that is for 1980s family sitcoms. I was a little too young to experience it in real time, though I saw my share of reruns of “Growing Pains” and “Who’s The Boss” thanks to syndication. “Child Star” taps into the feel for how these sitcoms would play out, their plots derivative and their casts charming if not a little generic. What struck me the most, however, was how Box worked in the whole way that politics and Nancy Reagan’s ideals would weasel their way into these shows and put forth ‘very special episodes’ about various societal ills. Looking back at those episodes through more modern lenses usually means that we see how cloying they are (especially the ‘don’t do drug’ episodes; I remember rewatching the “Growing Pains episode where frat boys offer Michael cocaine and then mock him when he says no. Coke is EXPENSIVE. No one is going to mock you for saying no, it’s more for them!). It also comments on how Owen was just used in a whole different way for other peoples motives, even if those other people were the President and First Lady.
I will say that while I haven’t had issues with Brown’s art style in the past, for some reason in “Child Star” it felt a little out of place and took away from the impact. I think that part of it is because in the other books I’ve read by him, the stories do have emotional aspects, but are also filled with hope and a little bit of whimsy. In “Child Star” it just feels like a tragedy, and therefore seeing the very cartoony illustrations was a little jarring.
Overall, “Child Star” is another well done graphic novel by Box Brown. It’s a bummer to be sure, but also interesting to look at these issues that no doubt still haunt various celebrities.
Rating 7: A poignant and sad faux documentary graphic novel that explores the wrecked life of a child actor, “Child Star” makes you think about the dark side of fame, especially for those who are too young to handle it.