Monday, March 29, 2021

Child Star by Brian “Box” Brown

Reviewed by Jeanne

When this graphic novel came in, I picked it up intending to glance through it and then send it on its way to our patrons.  The book opens with the lines, “Owen Eugene’s biography was written when he was 13 years old.  Maybe that says it all.”

Intrigued, I checked it out.  The book is a fictional biography of a child star of the 1980s, a kid who has presence, impeccable comedic timing, and the appearance of someone much younger—which is great when you are 14 and playing an 8 year old, not so great when you are 30 and still look like a child.  As the story opens, various people are being interviewed about Owen Eugene as if for some sort of documentary: his parents, his adult co-star on the series, other child actors.  Everyone has a story to tell, and the stories are as much about the people telling them as they are about Eugene.  They all also have the ring of truth because, really, we’ve heard this all before. 

And yet, this format does more than anything else I have read to illustrate (no pun intended) what life is like for a child actor.  In part I think that’s because we never hear the story from Eugene—just from those around him, all of whom have their own agenda, whether or not it is a conscious agenda. 

It follows the trajectory you might expect: child becomes overnight star with his own sit-com, a household name, with a catch phrase on T-shirts and his face on lunch boxes.  He rules the airwaves.  In true 80s/90s fashion, his comedy series takes on Important Issues of the day with “very special episodes” to highlight drug abuse, bullying, whatever.  The message is driven home with a sledgehammer and lessons are learned so that everyone can feel good about what is being done—which is actually nothing.  Movies, cartoons, guest appearances, and talk shows fill in any time gaps in the young actor’s schedule.  Stories start to emerge that he’s a spoiled brat, that he’s a bully, that he’s ungrateful. New shows pop up, all following the same formula but with younger, cuter stars.

And then for Owen, the jobs start to dry up.

Although this book isn’t about a specific kid actor, often their stories end up sounding much alike. There are exceptions, of course, but especially for the kids who look ever-childlike, it’s a hard transition.  The books draws a great deal from Gary Coleman’s real life story, but the problems of being a child star certainly predate that.  Jackie Coogan’s role in Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Kid transformed him into one of the first child stars and, in a foretaste of things to come, he found when he turned 21 that his considerable earnings had been spent by his mother and stepfather. The result was a new law in California to attempt to protect child actors.  Dean Stockwell had a lengthy career as a child star as well, and has spoken about the stress of basically being the family breadwinner at a tender age. Many child actors are adamant that they would never let one of their children be in the “the business,” but that doesn’t stop the flow of young talent.  Just take a moment and think of all the child stars you’ve watched, still known mostly by their character names:  the Brady Bunch kids, Blossom, Boy Meets World, Diff’rent Strokes, Facts of Life—the list goes on and on.

I feel this book does an excellent job of showing just how hard it really is to be a child star and yet does so without being sentimental or condescending.  It’s made me think a lot about those old shows and to see them in a different light.  I remember being totally shocked when “Buffy” from A Family Affair died of a drug overdose shortly after her 18th birthday. (Am I the only one who remembers that show?)  After reading this book, I think I understand a bit better; and I think the graphic novel format explains in a way just text or video can’t, allowing the reader to draw conclusions.

I was surprised at how much I liked this book. Part of it, certainly, was the trip down memory lane as I recalled other child stars, despite the fact that many were not living the dream that publicists made it seem.  The art was a little off-putting at first, until I got used to the style; it’s cartoony looking but certainly suits the subject and as I got used to I thought it was appropriate.

If you want a book to give a “behind the scenes” sort of vibe about child stars, this would be a good choice. I may recommend it to a co-worker who really likes the 80s!

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