While it's subtitled "An Existential Comic Diary," and its form is an of-the-moment smooshing of picture book, graphic novel, and ersatz journal entries, Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki's charming Tina's Mouth is at heart a coming-of-age story — and a refreshingly low-key one at that. Kashyap (words) and Araki (art) take on one semester in the life of Tina, an Indian-American teen who is bright and likable in all the ways coming-of-age heroes tend to be. Sometimes, she seems too bright, and her language once in a while seems demographically off: She says "malarkey" and calls one classmate "a drip."
The collaborators specialize in life and incident rather than plot, so much so that the story at times feels — for all its impressive craft — truly dished by a teenager, right down to just enough strong language to keep this tale of a young adult out of Young Adult.
That verisimilitude is a serious plus, especially since Kashyap and Araki invest the everyday moments they choose with such life. In sharp, teenish prose, and sharper, simple comic-style art, they cover Tina's falling out with a dear friend, a seemingly doomed crush, an awkward teen party, a high school production of Rashomon, and a pair of first kisses, the second of which is thrilling.
Narrator Tina is a Los Angeles prep schooler whose carping about other kids' responses to her Indian heritage might make a fine "Shit White Girls Say" video. She's a bit punk rock, but Kashyap and Araki spare us the usual story of American kids squabbling with immigrant parents. Just one generation removed from an arranged marriage, the thoroughly modern Tina only chafes against her family's traditions when she's asked on occasion to wear a sari. Instead of easy conflict, Kashyap and Araki dare something more meditative: The words on the page are meant to be letters Tina is writing to a future her — an assignment in a course on existentialism.
That means there's lots of entry-level Sartre (and a touch of Camus), which sounds dreary but works well. Again and again, Tina works herself up over truths that adult readers might find shopworn, like the realization (borrowed from Rashomon) that different people have different experiences even of a shared moment. But Araki flares light in Tina's long pair of eyes, and her often panel-less pages remind us how new ideas and feelings can lift us into a world greater than the physical — into "the heavenly and mysterious expanse," as an auntie puts it. At the end of her semester, and her foray into existentialism, Tina is not transformed in the way that characters of less-honest novels usually are. She's just expanded — now a little closer to actually being the person she wants to.
And, she can kiss.
Instead of just charting the discoveries of a smart kid's adolescence, Tina's Mouth can make you feel them. This is familiar material, yes, but it's familiar the way of philosophy and pop songs can be: At their best, the breathless feelings dramatized by Kashyap and Araki might match up to a corresponding one in you — and then set it off like fireworks.
Keshni Kashyap reads from and discusses Tina's Mouth: An Existential Diary at The Booksmith, 1644 Haight (at Belvedere), S.F, on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m.