There’s a magical immediacy to the medium, particularly in the eyes of a child (or simply the young-at-heart). For one thing, comics occupy a sort of midway point between the lushly illustrated picture books of infancy and the far more linguistically demanding chapter books and novels of grammar school and later life. With picture books, there is a redundancy to the words and images, each serving to clarify and reinforce the meaning of the other—“see Spot run” subtitling a painting of a mottled dog capering through a sun-dappled field, both words and picture conveying the same basic information in completely different ways. Whereas the unaccompanied prose of chapter books and novels appeals to a learned understanding of its meaning: “It was a sunny day, and Spot the dog ran happily through the tall green grass” recalling, as if from some cognitive repository of signs and signifiers, the mental image of a sprightly canine gamboling about in some bucolic locale. The words provide the pigment, but the mind paints the picture.
Comics, though! Comics do both more and less. Their intertwining words and illustrations are supplemental and intuitive rather than literal or evocative, providing paragraphs’ worth of nuanced sensory, spatial, and emotional data in the space of a single panel. To wit: A character’s incredulity conveyed through arching posture and a furrowed brow as well as by snide dialogue. Frustrated tones inferred from a stern expression and emphatically outstretched hands. The contents of a room providing context for the personality of their owner, but only insofar as the reader lingers, taking time to notice books on a shelf or posters on a wall. It can be so simple—mere heavy black lines and amorphous splotches of colour arranged inside a roughly rectangular field—yet it invariably manages to communicate so much.
Sadly, even while comics can provide volumes of narrative detail with both linguistic efficiency and artistic subtlety, they are regularly viewed as being somehow less worthy than competing (yet arguably congruous) narrative mediums like cinema and the written word. Films are more realistic. Novels are more explicit. Ergo, the common misconception—aided, no doubt, by an overtly visible profusion of sensationalist superheroes and juvenile slapstick—that comics, being neither convincingly realistic nor linguistically exacting, are both simpleminded and insincere. Moreover, that the persons who create and enjoy them are likely to be the same way.
Hence my reticence to profess my love of the medium to relative strangers.
Still, as noted by celebrated cartoonist/theorist Scott McCloud, the general public’s casual disparaging of comics is a matter of mistaking the message for the messenger, of conflating an entire medium with a handful of its generic subsets. Defining comics as merely superheroes and slapstick is tantamount to assuming that the Impressionists speak for all painters, or that all novels are Bildungsromans. This is simply untrue—patently false, even.
As discursive and apologetic as this introduction might seem, it is paramount to have a basic understanding of comics—what they do, how they are widely perceived in the Western world, and what they can optimally achieve—before endeavouring to discuss, let alone dissect, a given artist-author’s work. Such explanation is even more important in light of the fact that the work in question has been classified as “young adult” (ages 12 and up), which throws something of a wrench into the underlying “Comics aren’t just for kids!” argument.
But that wrench, much like the reflexive dismissal of comics as a serious narrative medium, has more to do with perception than reality. Meaning that, fittingly enough, it is something with which the characters of Anya’s Ghost could easily relate.
The debut graphic novel from Portland-based storyboard illustrator and cartoonist Vera Brosgol, Anya’s Ghost paints a vivid portrait of its titular teen, Anya Borzakovskaya, as she struggles to fit in amongst her classmates at a well-to-do New England private school.
A Russian immigrant and something of a social outcast, Anya is awash in insecurities. She’s embarrassed by her doting, proudly unassimilated single mother; annoyed by her intrusive younger brother, Sasha; overly self-conscious of her own body; frustrated by her tactless jerk of a best friend, Siobhan; jealous of Sean and Elizabeth, her school’s oh-so-perfect alpha couple; mortified by the gawky Dima, a fellow Russian immigrant whose blatant, “fresh off the boat” otherness reminds Anya of everything she doesn’t want to be. Not to mention the casual indignities of high school life, such as sadistic fitness tests, mind-numbing economics lectures, constant peer pressure, snide harassment from fellow students, and unexpected tumbles into an abandoned well.
Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t so typical, but it does present something of a fresh start for Anya—and for the nearly century-old ghost of Emily Reilly, whose skeleton just so happens to be moldering at the bottom of said well. Tired of not-quite-living in the dark all by her lonesome, Emily stows away in the unsuspecting Anya’s bag, later offering to use her otherworldly talents to help Anya improve her grades and woo her crush. The only problem is that Emily expects something in return, and she’s not about to take “no” for an answer.
Visually, Brosgol imbues her characters and backgrounds with a warmth and honesty that belie their fictional circumstances and somewhat abstracted forms. Her cleanly constructed pages neatly refrain from confusing clutter and needless details, smoothly leading the eye from panel to panel. Granted, this makes for something of a quick read—at two-hundred and twenty-one pages, Anya’s Ghost can easily be finished in a single sitting.
Brosgol also makes excellent use of her collegiate background in classical animation. Her bold lines, glaucous tones, expressive features, and fluid transitions effortlessly convey both motion and emotion, whether it’s with the tilt of a head, the curve of a brow and the curl of a lip, or with a character’s isolated placement in a wide-set shot.
But the artwork is only half the equation, a fact of which Brosgol appears very well aware. Sardonic but never wholly acerbic (and mercifully free of kitschy slang-slinging) the script trades almost exclusively in the defensive quips and casual complaints of angst-ridden adolescence, with well-placed moments of charmingly guileless sincerity peeking through here and there. While generally preoccupied with the retrospectively small-scale trials and tribulations of high school, the characters of Anya’s Ghost occasionally betray a much more mature and insightful worldview than their reflexive sarcasm and youthful solipsism would normally permit. As in her self-reflective conversation with Dima in the downtown library, Anya’s calmly-vented frustrations with schoolyard politics and prerequisite conformity provide hints of the insight which Brosgol likely acquired and codified long after her own graduation, when the grievances and frustrations of adolescence had all-but-faded from memory.
“This is just high school”, remarks Anya; “Impressing a bunch of snooty teenagers is a pretty lame life goal to have.”
Such pithy bits of wisdom and “it gets better” consolation serve to remind the reader, however implicitly, that although Anya’s Ghost is a story about a high school student, it was written by an adult (a “survivor”, if you will), and its underlying message of self-confidence and self-acceptance is likely to resonate with a much wider audience than its comic book exterior and “12 and up” designation would nominally imply.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, though. After all, appearances can be deceiving.
Really, my only complaint with Anya’s Ghost stems from its brevity, as well as the relative unimportance of the ghost of Emily Reilly in the grand scheme of things. Sure, Emily sets the proverbial ball a-rolling, her supernatural abilities and wily machinations steering Anya through the turbulent social waters of high school, thereby enabling Anya (however unintentionally) to develop a fuller sense of her own self-worth. And, granted, Emily’s occasional “back in my day” reminisces provide scattered shots of then-and-now context regarding the diminished importance of family and cultural heritage in the life of the modern teen. But that’s just gravy.
Truth be told, Emily pales (both literally and figuratively) in comparison to the much more substantial Anya, and can even be viewed as something of a MacGuffin, an excuse for the reader to poke his or her head into the otherwise-ordinary life of the young Miss Borzakovskaya—who, were it not for her established connection with the paranormal (which runs the risk of spiraling into some sort of Nancy Drew-ish magical-mystery-solving mess of macabre clichés, all zombies and werewolves and vampires, oh my!), could easily support an ongoing slice-of-life series, either in print or online.
And who knows? Maybe Vera Brosgol will grant another visit with Anya and her sleepy little New England town someday. ‘Til then, Anya’s Ghost remains a wonderful first time out for a talented author—and an excellent illustrator to boot.
Published by First Second Books in June 2011, Anya’s Ghost is available in both hardbound and paperback editions, and can be purchased online at Amazon.com.
Print Reviews (June 21st, 2011)
Tags: print, reviews, vera brosgol, anya's ghost, first second books, comics