Ross Campbell, Water Baby (DC Comics/Minx, 2008). Paperback. $9.99.
By Alex Boney
I should admit up front that, of the many reasons why I bought Ross Campbell’s Water Baby, the primary reason is that the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. The channel’s advertising was getting me pumped for a week-long festival of big, menacing fish, and the cover of Water Baby grabbed my interest immediately. The timing of this book’s release was impeccable. That said, the novel doesn’t have much to do with sharks. A shark attack does serve as the book’s initial conceit (and the main character shares a name with the Amity Island police chief from Peter Benchley’s Jaws), but the story is more about how a shark-attack survivor copes with the aftermath. I knew this going in, of course. I read the blurb on the back of the book and thumbed through it before I bought it, so I knew what to expect. My overall disappointment with Water Baby isn’t because there aren’t enough sharks in it; rather, it’s because the first half of the book set up human hopes and expectations that aren’t fulfilled.
Water Baby is about a surf-punk Florida girl named Brody who, while surfing one day, has her left leg bitten off just above the knee by a great white shark. The attack takes place early in the novel, and the event is every bit as jarring as it sounds in description. As Brody is recovering from the attack with the help of close friend Louisa, an ex-boyfriend named Jake comes to see her and ends up staying in her house. When Jake overstays his welcome, Brody decides it’s time to take him back to his home in New York. The second half of the novel is about the road trip that Brody, Louisa, and Jake take up the east coast.
If most of this sounds like the plot is designed for and pinpointed toward teenage girls, that’s because it is. Minx, DC Comics’ newest imprint, was formed with the primary intention of providing a westernized, comics-based alternative to manga and young-adult fiction. (For more on the Minx project, see the interview links at the end of this review.) Water Baby has all the requisite elements that make it an effective and appropriate addition to the Minx lineup: a rebellious young female protagonist, a loyal (if enabling) BFF, and an oblivious, leeching ex-boyfriend who only seems to complicate an already emotionally-difficult situation.
While I recognize that I’m not the target audience for Water Baby, it’s hard for me to imagine who could find this particular book’s characters appealing. Jake isn’t rendered with much depth at all and comes across as a cardboard component character type. To be fair, he is realistic to some degree; I know people like Jake. But aloof, empty people don’t necessarily make for interesting story material. Readers might be able to relate to Brody’s rebellious, fuck-the-world attitude, but it’s hard to read her crude and self-destructive behavior as appealing. Actually, this provides one of the most interesting dynamics of the book: If Brody hadn’t been attacked by a shark, I have to wonder if she would be a sympathetic or compelling character at all. Her closing salvo against Jake initially comes across as strong and defiant (as if she’s telling the shark that attacked her to go to hell), but it can also be read as weak, cruel, and pathetic.
I didn’t dislike Water Baby. After I put the book down, it was stuck in my head for quite a while. For one thing, Campbell’s art is phenomenal. His understanding and rendering of the human body is quite advanced, and his use of gray-tones in the black-and-white art adds visual depth to the characters and settings. Although the road-trip second half of Water Baby doesn’t really go anywhere, the first 75 pages of the book had me hooked. The characters and plot elements were enough to pull me in, and I wanted to see how Brody would cope with her attack. In the first half of the book, Campbell presents frequent dream sequences in which a shark (occasionally in humanoid form) emerges from floors and walls to attack Brody or Louisa. These scenes are visually and emotionally stunning, and the parallels drawn between the shark and Jake are interesting. Neither Jake nor the shark is necessarily malicious. They do what they do to survive without much thought of who gets hurt in the process. Brody is so paralyzed and vulnerable after the shark attack that she continues to allow Jake to hurt her without realizing what’s happening.
Ultimately, Water Baby is a story about a young woman ending a state of destructive stagnancy. The problem is that the protagonist is so repulsive that, by the end of the book, the only person I really want to see happy is her friend Louisa. Brody had made such a mess of her life before the shark attack that she begins the story at a disadvantage and doesn’t really have much to fall back on even if she discards Jake. The familiar lesson that “we can get through it all if we just rely on our good friends who are always there for us” is appealing to any young reader trying to find direction and cope with difficulty, but it doesn’t fit a character who seems so determined to repel everyone around her. If Campbell writes a sequel, I hope it either focuses more on Louisa or provides a clearer sense of growth and redemption. Water Baby isn’t a failure as a whole, but it did leave me unconvinced and bothered by the end. The book is interesting because of the questions it asks and the challenges it presents, even if the answers and solutions aren’t particularly satisfying.