Magpies & Crones: Graylight

Posted by on March 13th, 2010 at 6:31 AM

Rob reviews Naomi Nowak’s fantasy comic, GRAYLIGHT (NBM).

You really never know what’s coming from NBM’s ComicsLit imprint.  Along with translations of European masters like David B, Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, Chris Blain and others, there are also political works from Ted Rall & David Axe and historical comics by Rick Geary–and that’s just for starters.  More than any other publisher save Drawn & Quarterly, NBM has made a concerted effort to feature manga and manga-inspired works alongside the American and Franco-Belgian traditions.  From Veronique’ Tanaka to Byun Byung-Jun, we’ve seen a number of stylish, unusual works from the worlds of manga and manhwa.

Naomi Nowak’s GRAYLIGHT is a graphic novel by a Swede working in both Japanese and European idioms.  Her figures have the wispy facial features, flushed cheeks and slightly exaggerated eyes of manga.  There’s a lushness and fullness to her pages that reflect the classic European album.  The format is a manga-sized digest, which I thought was an unfortunate choice because I thought it cramped a lot of the pages.  For a story that features as many purely decorative touches as this one does, the digest format made reading some of the pages confusing.

The story can best be described as a romantic melodrama that slowly turns into fantasy.  Aesthetically, I had some of the same problems reading this book as I do with other manga-inspired works.  My eye “fell off the page” looking at the lumpiness of some of her figures (especially the men) and the way they bled into the decorative use of color in the backgrounds.  This was unfortunate, because a number of her compositional choices are interesting, especially the pages with multiple panels chopping up action and placed at skewed angles to each other. The other major problem I have with her work is the way she depicts figures in space.  When drawing them flatly against a decorative color-field, they look vibrant.  When she depicts them interacting with each other, her figures look awkward and stiff.

Most of the characters in the book are cyphers, with the exception of the two female leads.  Toward the end of the book, it becomes clear that this is by design.  The book begins with a young woman leaving her husband and taking her newborn son with her–only to discover that her husband killed himself because he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her.  The woman, Aurora, vows to protect her son from women like herself.  Years later, we  meet Sasha, a petty thief living in a Northern Lights country (presumably Sweden).  She winds up with a writer trying to interview Aurora, who is a reclusive author living with her now-adult son.

The writer is smitten with her in a way that he’s never felt before.  Sasha steals a book from Aurora (saying that she feels some objects simply are better left in her possession) and draws the ire and obsessive interest of the son.  What seems like a love triangle becomes something else altogether as the fantasy elements of the book start to take prominence.  The gray light of the summer nights is a stand-in for fairy light, where light and colors take on a dream-like quality.  Aurora is revealed as a witch trying to kill Sasha with a spell, but the real reveal of the book is that Sasha’s had magical qualities all along, of which she was unaware.   She draws in men because no one can resist her.  Weird things happened around her because that was her nature.

The son intervenes to rescue her once he figures out that she was special, leading to an ending that I thought was unexpected.  There’s no magical romance to be found at the end, just some lives starting over and the understanding that the woods aren’t big enough for two witches.  In that sense, this story went back to traditional fairy tales for its ending, drawing on the sense of peril one can experience when dealing with these alluring forces.  While the story and the visuals were in some respects the antithesis of my personal aesthetic (it’s over the top, unclear and sometimes twee), I have a great deal of admiration for Nowak’s sheer devotion to her own vision.  The colorscape she uses is crucial in telling the sort of story she’s interested in, and I admire the way she subverts the typical romance story by using a genre trope.

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