“Hollywood makes you grow up fast”.
Based on true stories of television child stars of the 1980s, this graphic novel basically fictionalizes the life of Gary Coleman, star of Different Strokes, as Owen Eugene and is heavy on the nostalgia factor.
Told as if this story was a documentary, we know almost immediately Owen is dead, as he is spoken about in the past tense by his family and business associates who recount his life. His parents share his early years and the health problems that would stunt his growth, making him look younger than his actual years. This served him well for many years, as he could portray a character younger than himself, but had the intelligence to make it seem as if he were a comedic prodigy. He became the breakout child star in a sitcom, with the catchphrase ” I don’t understand” becoming his Achilles heel in later years. Behind the scene manipulation of sitcom storylines show the artificiality of it all, with the child actors taking the brunt of it. His parents, agents and producers use Owen for their own gain. He never gets to rest, as he is hustled from his television series to various television movies with no break for years. When he becomes a teenager, he is still forced into juvenile roles as he looks much younger, and when he truly begins to look older the roles dry up as his short stature and typecasting prevent him from being taken seriously in adult roles. His adult life is a series of disappointments, with two disastrous marriages (some issues are brought up but not explored) and a steady decline in his health.
The artwork is cartoonish, drawn with broad strokes. The layout is comic strip style, often with nine equal panels. A limited color palette was used- black and white with different color gradients of pink and red for shading. The art captures the essence of the many different people being interviewed, with a few caricatures of real people like Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Farrah Fawcett.
Pop culture is laid bare in this narrative, with adult readers like myself, uncomfortably looking back at the sitcoms of our youth. I couldn’t help but feel bad for stars of my youth like Coleman and Emmanual Lewis who couldn’t make the move from child star to adult actor. Even actors and actresses with no physical impairments were so jaded and broken by the system, that drug abuse and faded careers become the norm for some of them. And while this book spotlights the heyday of the 80s sitcom, has Hollywood fared better nowadays? Today many failed young Disney actors or musical pop groups have fame yanked away from them. While not a perfect book, this sobering story will make you think about what secrets lie behind the laugh tracks.