Expect the Unexpected: when graphic novelists defy stereotypes, Sarah
On Two Graphic Novels from Our Library That Have Been Quarantined With me for Three Months... and Counting
For the first time in my living memory (and I'm old, I was born last century, last millennium even!), books checked out as far back as February, are still not due back to the library. On the contrary, we are being implored NOT to return our library books, as book drops are only so big, while a pandemic, evidently, is longer than a piece of string by anyone's guesstimate. So it is I find myself in the company of the same book covers every night as I stare from my bed before sleep, and so it is that the two comic books in my pile, with their dramatic illustrations, jump out at me night after night, at times haunting me, at others soothing. The very graphic nature of a graphic novel's jacket is both its magnificence as a representation of the book's inner artwork and an indication of the (often gory) story within. I lucked out; the two publications that stare back at me from the void of COVID-19, are both arresting and interesting. I have read them both cover to cover, I have leafed through them both many many times, I have returned to them to find a favorite illustration or passage or page. I am on intimate terms with them. If you had to pick two comics to be interminably locked-down in a suburban house with, you could do a lot worse (or maybe the point in the case of one of them is you couldn't do worse) than Harleen by Stjepan Sejic—he is the writer AND illustrator—and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell.
They differ in is size; Harleen is a large glossy hardcover where LDKBUWM is a typical book. They differ in color and visuals; Harleen is colorful, if sepia-toned, with bright splashes and gashes of reds in illustrations rendered almost like photographs, whereas Laura Dean sticks to a monochrome palette of grays and b&w pencil-like drawings, with only a salmon shade of pink here and there to change things up and up the drama.
Where they are surprisingly similar is in the narrative content. One is about a villain (guess which) and would be shelved among the superhero comics and one is about teenagers and would be classified as LGBTQ YA lit. The unexpected delight in both cases is that the obvious is not the story—in each case the origin story is not the story, not even the subtext, as is so typically the way in both genres. No, I will not offer a synopsis of either book, but stick to this amazing point: Harleen tackles the topic of obsessive love, of poor choices and how we are drawn to destructive relationships— the lure of the bad boy image. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me deals with obsessive love, poor choices and how we are drawn to destructive relationships—the pull of negative cycles. They each fly off on their own tangents, one a story of descent into the dark that such desire can lead and the other a story of redemption, of ending the cycle and finding the light. But what I found beautiful was that no matter the characters, no matter the presentation, no matter the sexuality or superhumanity of the protagonists, these are two stories about love and obsession, about finding yourself and discovering your own wants and needs. Both also happen to be about women, which makes the self-identity vs self-destructive theme even stronger. Two very outwardly different books (much like so many outwardly different people) defy their niches to tell a universal story of women in the world, the paths we forge as we try to figure life out—and of twisted love. To me this remarkable feat of surpassing the prescribed conversations about being gay or being an anti-hero—literally abandoning the script, for the unexpected— makes them both very brave, very believable and very memorable!
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