Side Effects feels like a series of public service announcements strung together. It doesn’t feel like mandatory public service announcements, which is something, but earnest only gets you so far. In the case of Side Effects, there’s nothing past so far. It’s a competent graphic novel about college freshman Hannah experiencing a mental health crisis while meeting a girl who also experiences mental health crises.
What are these crises? Where do they come from?
None of your business.
Writer Ted Anderson gets to accessible through blandness. Besides the story being about a bunch of primarily queer young women, everything in the book has been watered down. Even their conversations have been watered down. Hannah’s shrink comes off as less personable than ChatGPT while still being undeniably supportive.
The “hook” of Side Effects is Hannah getting a bunch of Dial H-For-Hero superpowers, except it depends on what kind of medication she’s taking. Now the real way to do the comic would be to talk about how the medications make her feel different, maybe tie the powers into those changes—or even the adverse side effects of the actual drug. But Anderson’s not willing to go there with Hannah (or any of the other characters). Side Effects is from an indie press, but one with a very corporate approach to storytelling.
So the heart and soul have to come from artist Tara O’Connor. And O’Connor does okay. She’s better with expressions than composition, but she keeps the book moving, which helps a bunch since it’s really long and nothing really happens to Hannah. She has misadventures because of her powers (which sometimes only she can see). She even helps a fellow student in some very serious trouble (and very responsibly told), but she’s got no character. So maybe starting the book with her getting to college and cutting to her first panic attack without even introducing the supporting cast (or establishing it wasn’t happening immediately upon arrival) wasn’t the way to go.
With several asterisks—Side Effects is for teen readers (it says “Young Adult” after all) and is priced for library shelves—it’s okay. It’s average for the genre. The only thing to make it stand out is its lack of insight and passion. Of course, well-meaning corporate product is better than not-well-meaning corporate product, but it’s tough to get excited about it either way. If publishers Seismic Press (an imprint of Aftershock) really wanted to do good, couldn’t they have released a thirty-two-pager on Free Comic Book Day?