The first American Girl comic book, Julie and the Blue Guitar, is a worthy installment in the franchise

Julie and Emma are both shown holding Julie’s diary with a blue guitar between them.
Image: Felia Hanakata/IDW Publishing

But it raises questions about the diversity of the dolls themselves

My memories of American Girl literature are strong. The chapter books painted backstories for my favorite dolls, giving me a taste for historical fiction and nonfiction that I still have today, and books like Hair: Styling Tips and Tricks for Girls and The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls offered a gender-affirming look at girlhood in an otherwise fraught moment for representations of women in media: the mid-2000s.

Julie and Emma are both shown holding Julie’s diary with a blue guitar between them.
Image: Felia Hanakata/IDW Publishing

So, when IDW Publishing and Mattel announced they were partnering for a set of American Girl graphic novels for the kids of the 2020s, I got really excited. Polygon got the chance to read the first, Julie and the Blue Guitar, written by Casey Gilly and drawn by Felia Hanakata, before it was released to readers this week. Blue Guitar continues the American Girl tradition of telling fascinating historic stories through a hopeful lens, but it also brings forth a failure inherent in the dolls themselves: their singularity.

Gilly and Hanakata are not new to transforming iconic franchises into comic books — between them, they’ve worked on well-received tales in the canon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Dragon Prince, My Little Pony, and Dungeons & Dragons, to name a few — so it’s no surprise that Julie and the Blue Guitar is compelling and inventive.

The creators build on the history of Julie Albright, a ’70s-era doll introduced in 2007, bringing her story into the 21st century via her diary, which is discovered by the book’s present-day lead, Emma Dhillon, while moving into her new home in San Francisco. This kicks off two parallel tales — one in which Emma makes a documentary about her journey to figure out who Julie is, and Julie and her friends try to solve the mystery of a stolen blue guitar in 1977.

A panel from Julie and the Blue Guitar shows Emma talking to her dad. Emma says, “Julie’s life seems so cool. I’d love to find out where she is today. Her dad responds, “Do you think she lived around here?” Julie then says, “That’s it! I’ll make my film about finding Julie! That’s way more interesting than me unpacking boxes.”
Image: Casey Gilly and Felia Hanakata/IDW Publishing

To keep the stories straight, Hanakata borders Emma’s sequences in blue and Julie’s in yellow, but I’ll admit I was confused by the premise at first. A panel of Emma and Julie shouting simultaneously while facing each other had me thinking we were time traveling for a moment — but once I settled into the parallel narratives (and the color coding), I didn’t put the book down until I finished it.

It wasn’t just the American Girl nostalgia that kept me turning the page. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. Hanakata’s thick-lined, brightly pigmented representation of Julie is refreshingly modern compared to the photorealistic imagery of her on the American Girl website. The pages designed to look like the inside of Julie’s journal make me excited for kids who get to create imaginary worlds for their Julie dolls based on what they learn about her in this book.

Julie’s story also centers on her motivation to raise money to benefit the San Francisco Bay oil spill cleanup, which is based on the real-life spill that happened in 1971. In true American Girl form, the last few pages of the book contain information about several real-life historical events that inspired elements of the story.

A panel from Julie and the Blue Guitar shows Julie sitting on the floor reading about an oil spill.
Image: Casey Gilly and Felia Hanakata/IDW Publishing

It’s not only accurate in the historic sense. Gilly and Hanakata aren’t shy about incorporating modern technology and vernacular, which feels like a great way to keep young readers interested. Emma films her documentary on her smartphone, illustrated to look like the UI of a real phone, down to the puppy filter that pops up on Emma’s face in a few scenes. Gilly strikes a nice balance of modernity, sending Emma’s character to the library to look through local yearbooks that don’t exist in digital form, just like Julie’s diary.

However, this book throws one of my biggest reservations about American Girl as a now-adult feminist into stark relief. Hanakata’s Emma is short with dark hair that fades to pink at the ends, framing her round face and complementing her relatively chubby build. Julie is consistent with other American Girl artwork of the doll: She’s thin and willowy, with long, blonde hair.

The American Girl doll Julie is shown wearing her character outfit and standing beside her journal.
Image: American Girl via Polygon
The Julie American Girl doll comes with a copy of her journal.
A create-your-own American Girl doll is shown wearing a flannel and ripped jeans. The doll has short, curly brown hair, brown skin, and freckles.
Image: American Girl via Polygon
This is the closest I could get to a doll that resembles Emma using’s doll creation tool.

But though you can buy a Julie doll, you can’t buy an Emma doll. I tried to create a custom Emma doll on the American Girl website, but I couldn’t find a hairstyle or color to match, nor could I customize her shorter height and thicker body shape. No matter what, every American Girl doll is predestined to be 18 inches tall with a soft, flat belly and legs that don’t touch.

It isn’t that the dolls are particularly harmful in their representation — compared to the wide world of big-brand dolls, they’re not overly skinny, and you can select from a range of skin colors and hair types. But their homogeneity in body type means that, in media like this comic, the dolls are all represented similarly, too.

In short: There hasn’t been a fat American Girl doll yet, and it’s past due. For one reason or another, Gilly and Hanakata chose to represent Julie and the Blue Guitar’s main character as having a body dissimilar from Julie’s, and that begs the question: If American Girl’s new graphic novel line can build compelling stories with body diversity, when will American Girl reflect that in its main business?

The book cashes in on body diversity in a good way — I’m glad young readers will see a smart, intriguing character that might look more like them in American Girl media — but Mattel fails to back it with dolls that purport that value, too. It’s a shame that kids would have to get creative with their dolls to create narratives that match the body diversity in Julie and the Blue Guitar, because the choice to make Emma different makes for a better graphic novel. Why can’t those varying shapes and sizes exist for the dolls, too?

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