Since I’ve always championed the merits of reading comic books and graphic novels, I was ecstatic to see some choice additions in our new stock. I devoured, in quick succession, Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie based on David Bowie’s early life, and Neil Gaiman’s Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire. After briefly surfacing to join the world, I dove back into three more graphic novels and revisited one from before. The result? I had no idea which one of them to choose for an in-depth review as I had greatly enjoyed them all.
Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed a similarity: they all focused on growth through journeys. Visually, most featured simplistic drawing styles (although Robert Hunter’s Map of Days has some mind boggling compositions in it) and limited colour palettes.
Isabel Greenberg’s debut The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, put her on the map in 2013, along with her love of stories and the art of storytelling itself. In it we follow a storyteller separated from the woman he loves due to an uncanny phenomena. He is from the North Pole and she from the South, but the effects of the magnetic field cause them to repel each other instead of being in each other’s arms as they crave. The solution they settle on is to simply spend their lives with each other with the distance between them acting as a part of their day-to-day life. To while away the time they tell each other stories. The novel begins with her asking the storyteller to tell her how he came to her, one she has heard many times but has not yet grown tired of. It’s easy to see why. The storyteller launches into his tale and we are treated to one of the best life histories ever written. He travels the world encountering distant lands and strange creatures like ogres and warrior nations like the Hals and Dags that inhabit Early Earth. Along the way he experiences divine intervention (both helpful and hindering) from the god Birdman, and his children Kid and Kiddo.
The three gods make a return in Greenberg’s second graphic novel, The One Hundred Nights of Hero, joining a new cast featuring Cherry and her lover Hero. When Cherry’s diabolical husband makes a twisted wager with his friend Manfred over whether he can seduce Cherry in the time he is away, the two women must band together to save Cherry and keep their relationship a secret. Hero decides to tell Manfred (and later the guards and anyone in the vicinity of the castle are added) a story every night to stall the seduction. In the tradition of The Arabian Nights, Hero keeps Manfred (and us) enthralled with her interwoven stories that eventually put both women in danger and save them as well. While both graphic novels take place in the same universe, The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a standalone story and is actually the one I read first.
Both books show off Greenberg’s superior storytelling ability and her love of the medium as well. Sporting primarily black and white pages, there are well-placed splashes of colour that accentuate the dramatic moments of the story and help make her pages beautiful and expressive. Both are odes to storytelling, containing multiple stories within a frame tale, all of them gripping and highly imaginative. In her simplistic drawings Greenberg manages to convey great amounts of emotion and just as importantly, moments of quiet and contemplation, allowing the reader to absorb the events in each panel fully.
Where Greenberg’s books have small pops of colour, Robert Hunter’s Map of Days is a technicolour explosion on each page, as his complicated compositions take on a creation myth of his own making. Gone is the god with the head of a bird and his children, instead we have nine celestial siblings who each create a corner of the universe and retire. The ninth sibling is responsible for creating Earth and becomes obsessed with the Sun. Later an unnamed narrator discovers a way to the being through the grandfather clock in his grandfather’s house and he soon must navigate his way around the being as the first living creature the sibling has seen in years.
Map of Days is a visual masterpiece; Hunter’s illustrations are lush and ethereal. His characters don’t show much emotion and there are no speech bubbles. Instead blocks of text dot the pages that are more image-centric. The end result is a dream-like narrative which the narrator relates to us from a point in the future. The images are motionless compared to Greenberg’s where there is constant movement from wind, water and falling leaves on almost every page. Map of Days allows for slower reading as we are forced to observe each panel on the page which shows a small change in the characters’ actions. The lack of in-panel dialogue also distances us from the events, reinforcing the distance the narrator has from this story as well. Many small grids and rectangular panels make up the neatly structured, orderly pages making for an immensely beautiful, contemplative story that is more than just fantasy.
Luke Healy’s How to Survive in the North was the last one I read and ended up being a strange combination of the previous two. The snow and ice (which naturally features in a fictional narrative of real life Arctic expeditions) is reminiscent of the icy landscapes in Greenberg’s work, and the limited four colour palette imbues each page with the richness of Hunter’s work. However while Hunter’s colours make for a warm, almost suffocating atmosphere on each page of dense flora and fauna, Healy’s use of colour helps bring the remote iciness of the Arctic into sharp relief.
Based on the diaries of Ada Blackjack and Robert Bartlett, Healy’s work traces their expeditions up north. Clean lines, not unlike Hergé’s for Tintin, dominate his pages, while his characters have minimal design. Healy’s characters are up against formidable odds in this story, facing shipwreck and polar bears in the middle of nowhere. Bartlett and Blackjack’s stories are being read by a fictional professor in the future who spends his sudden sabbatical in the university library researching their records. Healy sympathetically renders his characters and how they deal with their situations- even if their circumstances are self-inflicted- allowing for a fascinating recounting of historical events and the hardships one has to endure when undertaking such journeys.
Read together, these four graphic novels have taken me to strange worlds and back, giving me a greater appreciation for this genre and all its potential. Read separately, I’m sure they’ll delight any fan of visual narratives and wonderful storytelling.