My Last Summer with Cass is the newest graphic novel by author and illustrator Mark Crilley. The story follows two young artists, Megan and Cassandra, who are on the cusp of adulthood. Though they’ve been friends since they were young children, their time together was limited to the summers their families shared with each other at a cottage in Michigan, where the girls created all sorts of art together, nurturing each other’s talents. This summer tradition came to a sudden end, however, with Cass and her mother moving to New York.
Three years later, Megan convinces her parents to let her stay with Cass in Brooklyn while they are on a business trip. Reunited after so long, Megan is introduced to a world of art like she’s never experienced before—and a friend who has changed a lot in three years. The big city offers big opportunities, both exciting and scary, but as their personalities begin to clash, putting their art at risk, can their friendship survive?
Considering the tagline of this graphic novel, it may come as no surprise that this is a very character-driven story. I have followed Crilley’s work for well over a decade, and while I haven’t picked up every book he’s put out in that time, I do regularly view his video work. It was thanks to one of his recent videos that I had a good preview of what the crux of this story would be: the clashing personalities of these two young artists, giving me a pretty good idea of where the story would be heading. In many respects it did line up with what I expected, but more importantly, I was surprised by just how absorbed I became in the captivating personalities of the characters.
Though Megan is the perspective character between the two friends, Crilley does a great job of balancing the way they are represented. At first it was easy to be more sympathetic with the anxious and reserved Megan, facing a barrage of new experiences and an affable yet pushy Cass. I could easily relate with Megan’s discomfort in many cases, and while Cass is not antagonistic, the hints of impatience and/or scorn for Megan’s reservations were obvious and often irksome.
Not yet out of her teen years herself, Cass embodies the type of headstrong youth who believes she has already figured things out. Despite the pretentiousness that comes with this, her more adventurous side started to speak to me fairly quickly, especially in cases where she shows appreciation for less conventional art that Megan has yet to open her mind to. I began to share in her feelings of impatience with Megan’s extreme unwillingness to take certain risks. In her own naïve way, Megan believes certain pursuits are a figurative death sentence,. It was impressive to find myself so drawn to contrasting perspectives, depending on the context, endearing me to both and making them each feel like nuanced characters.
It was easy to imagine the impasses such people could come to, as one has no fear with pushing boundaries and the other is adamant about avoiding even leaning on them. What made their differences matter all the more was how compatible they were around each other most of the time, especially when creating art together. It wasn’t just a matter of waiting for the shoe to drop, but relishing in their shared love of art and the bonds they form with other artists along the way. It made the encroaching conflict all the more impactful. Simply put, Crilley did a great job making me care.
While characterization certainly played a part, a great deal of credit goes to his excellent illustration work in this book, which may be my favourite that he’s done. The characters are wonderfully expressive, especially in moments where the paneling takes a beat to give us their reaction, leaving a strong impression without words. Colour is used beautifully to shift tone too, especially between warm and cool ambient colours. Most favourite of all were some of the larger panels, some two-page spreads, that sincerely gave me pause. I feel more limited in critiquing visual art, so I’m not sure I can expound upon what exactly struck a chord with me. I just found it all very beautiful.
Structurally, the story is cut into three parts, with parts one and three serving as bookends, the bulk of the story taking place in part two. This is where the book ran into a bit of a snag for me. Part one serves its purpose well with brevity; the backstory for the characters is well-established and it sets up part two nicely. Part three, on the other hand, jumps us forward a little in time to deal with the fallout of the climactic moment of the previous part. While it was a worthy resolution to what had gone down, with plenty of heart, I couldn’t shake the feeling that book was in a hurry to finish. So much groundwork had been laid and I had become so invested that such a relatively speedy conclusion could not help being disappointing.
My disappointment with the final part notwithstanding, My Last Summer with Cass is still a very good coming of age story, offering a look into a rich world of artistic expression, while telling an affectingly sentimental tale about the value of friendship and the struggles that come with growing up. This is the some of the author’s best illustrative work as well, with a number of treats for the eyes in its larger panels. By no means a groundbreaking narrative, but certainly worth checking out.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5