BLOOM, A NEW GRAPHIC NOVEL by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau, is about two high-school-age boys who meet and fall in love one summer while working at a family bakery. The words (by Panetta) are earnest, touching, and unpretentious, while the art (by Ganucheau) is comfortingly reminiscent of iconic comic-book art (think Archie). Universally toned in a dreamy, oceanic monochrome of pale blue, the illustrations — created in Photoshop using GrutBrushes’s pastel “papaya grind” — breeze you through the book.
Ari Kyrkos is a recent high school graduate. He and his friends live in East Beach and spend their time playing in an indie-pop band. Their dream is to move to nearby Baltimore, where the music scene is hopping and they might have a chance at the big time. (If the success of the band Beach House is any indicator, Ari and his friends are wise to want to move there.) Ari is beautiful: thin and lithe, with brooding, feminine eyes and wild, black hair. He looks kind of like current Hollywood it-boy Timothée Chalamet. In order to leave home, he has to find a replacement for himself at the family bakery. He doesn’t want to knead and braid dough and sweat in a hot kitchen all summer.
Enter Hector Galeai, a recent graduate of culinary school who has moved up to East Beach from Birmingham, Alabama, to take care of some family matters. Hector’s passion in life is baking, and he happily responds to the “Help Wanted” posters that Ari posts. Hector is tall and broad-shouldered, with hair thick and wavy on the top, shaved on the sides and in back. He has a warm smile and a strong presence. Hector recently ended a relationship with his boyfriend back home, so he feels a little lonely. After he takes the job at the bakery, a rapport between the two boys begins to blossom.
Ari, no longer so moody, and less reluctant now to work at the bakery, takes a shine to his newfound friend, who is a wizard with a mound of dough. As the weeks pass and the beachy summer air grows balmier, Ari and his friends’ plans for their band begin to unravel. It becomes clear to everyone that Ari’s priorities are shifting; his behavior becomes mysterious and erratic, and he is not sure anymore of what he wants or needs. It’s apparent, however, that he enjoys spending as much time as possible with Hector. To say more would spoil the story.
Bloom is neither a fantasy epic nor a sci-fi adventure, yet there is a powerful magic present. There’s alchemy in stories in which people connect over food. Food is sensuous. It’s communicative. It’s powerful. People prepare meals together, eat together as a family, go out to eat on first dates, celebrate milestones at restaurants, build careers out of food, farming, gardening, harvesting. And, as rendered in the pages of this graphic novel, food can be the substance of a flirty courtship.
This is the best kind of romantic tale: innocent and unfussy, yet overwhelming. Author Panetta’s story is baked to perfection: a crush that turns to infatuation — and later love — in the confines of a professional kitchen bristling with hot stoves, stuffed shelves, and perfectly shaped spanakopita. Ganucheau’s intermittent two-page-spread collages of Ari and Hector kneading, folding, and braiding dough into scrumptious rolls, cakes, and baguettes — while tropical flowers bloom from the edges of the page and all around them — are dreamy, strange, and wildly savory. You can literally smell the tantalizing aroma of fresh-baked goods in the air, amplified by the sweetly lusty sideways glances Ari and Hector toss at one another.
It’s a wonder, quite frankly, how this graphic novel so deftly normalizes a burgeoning homosexual relationship between two young men. It’s never made clear whether Ari’s parents, neighbors, or best friends know — or even care — that he is gay. The romance blossoms, and the relationship forms as simply and sweetly as a cup of white flour. There is neither darkness nor shame here. I do wonder, though, if a devastating incident that occurs at a crucial moment of consummation could be construed as a metaphor for that trolling black cloud that often follows young gay men in popular culture.
Bloom is neither a vexing “coming out” story nor a cautionary tale of existential angst. No one is bullied, threatened, thrown out of the house, or banished. No one is self-medicating with drugs or promiscuity. It’s sad, really, that this is pretty much what we’ve come to expect in stories of young gay men today. The lack of ordinary conflict is simultaneously this breathtaking book’s crowning glory and its most enigmatic aspect. While a tale that evades all the tired tropes of gay life is completely refreshing, there will undoubtedly be those who question whether Bloom is also evading the realities of what young gay men still struggle with, even in 2019. This book is a far cry, for example, from Boy Erased, Garrard Conley’s critically acclaimed 2016 memoir (made into an acclaimed 2018 film) that explores the horrors of gay conversion therapy. 2017’s scintillating Call Me by Your Name, the Oscar-nominated film of André Aciman’s 2007 novel, featured an innocent, burgeoning gay romance, but set in an era where love between men had to be kept secret, and where the men felt pain and possibly shame.
Call Me by Your Name in fact shares a slice of DNA with Bloom. There is a tender and heartfelt scene toward the film’s climax where the young protagonist’s father lovingly confesses to his crestfallen son that he knows about his romance and envies the connection and love he feels. He urges the boy to revel in that feeling, to feel grateful for that relationship. A similar scene in Bloom features Ari’s father making a point to say that he sees a big change in his son, a shift back to the happiness of his younger self, ever since Hector arrived at the bakery.
Bloom raises the question whether gay stories — be they graphic novels or otherwise — should honor the struggles LGBTQ youth experience by starkly exposing them or by portraying life as completely normal so as to eradicate the hackneyed assumptions and biases that surround them. In any event, there is something undeniably powerful — and important — in having a father acknowledge his son’s homosexuality in such a loving and positive way.
Ganucheau’s first image capturing a moment of Ari and Hector’s intimacy is breathtaking, palpable in its permanence. It takes place in the morning, in the bright light of day, and not in some secretive place, at night or in the shadows. In film and television, kisses between men seldom linger; the camera seems to shift and move uncomfortably. In Bloom, this moment is depicted as a straightforward, warm, doughy embrace. Ganucheau and Panetta’s dreamy, cerulean palette retains its easy spirit, never conveying through any kind of shift that Ari and Hector’s love is anything but natural.
Tim Cummings holds an MFA in Writing for Young People from Antioch University Los Angeles. Recent publications include work in F(r)iction, Lunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, From Whispers to Roars, Fterota Logia, Critical Read, for which he won the 2019 “Origins” essay contest, and LARB. He holds a BFA in Acting from NYU and is the recipient of three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards.