Graylight: review by Ian Burns

Posted by on March 12th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Graylight; Naomi Nowak; NBM; 144 pp., $12.95; Color, Softcover; ISBN: 978-1561635672

The Norse myths say that, as the Valkyries rode across the morning sky, the Aurora Borealis shone off their brilliant armor. Swedish-born Naomi Nowak may not have been influenced by this myth while working on Graylight (although her place of birth certainly supports the assertion), and if she wasn’t, the myth’s relevance to Graylight makes the story all the more magical.

Graylight is set in the arctic during summer, stated obtusely, identifiable by Nowak’s incredible variety of animal and plant life (Nowak’s obvious love of the latter, which contributes an abundance of verisimilitude to the story, warrants its own essay). It’s the sort of place one would expect to wake up in and, opening the curtains before dawn, gaze out upon the Northern Lights as the first image for a new day. On the other hand, opening Graylight that same morning might offer a similar experience, albeit slightly less awe-inspiring. It’s because the color palette throughout the book is Aurora Boreal. Ceaselessly. And the first character that appears is in fact named Aurora.

In the prologue, Aurora cradles her baby boy, comforting him as she prepares to kick his father out of the house. On the first two-page spread, Aurora jumpstarts the narrative: “If a woman capable of this devastation ever comes along in your life . . .” (she refers to herself) “. . . I’ll recognize her. You’ll never end up like your father. I promise.” She will dedicate her life to protecting Edmund, her son, from evils like her: the mother as both a poison and a set of armor.

After the prologue Graylight flashes forward: Aurora has become a recluse whose legend permeates a small arctic town outside the tundra. Sasha, a young “girl-thief,” claims the town has “less distractions,” but quickly proves the contrary when Erik, a writer who has been invited to interview Aurora, asks her to accompany him to Aurora’s house. There, in a sheet-metal-specked cottage, Sasha meets Aurora and all-grown-up Edmund. Claiming she is making Aurora nervous, Sasha leaves the cottage in a hurry, swiping a book of fables from Aurora’s collection on the way out. After being confronted by Edmund, Sasha refuses to return the book, claiming it belongs with her: someone who’ll appreciate it. But Sasha underestimates her victims—Aurora and Edmund are both witches—and a paralyzing spell overtakes her. Aurora, who casts the spell, isn’t actually concerned about the book. She believes Edmund is attracted to Sasha, whom she dubs a “harpy,” and, as she promised, will stop at nothing to protect him. If one considers the Aurora Boreal color scheme together with Aurora’s motivation and the spell-casting trope, the myth mentioned above becomes pertinent. The Valkyries’ shield is Aurora’s desire to protect Edmund from the outside world (he only leaves the cottage to buy groceries), and the spell she casts to protect Edmund from Sasha is the manifestation of that desire —effectively, the shield envelops the entire story. The uniformity of the color palette, then, is the reflection off the shield: a visual representation of Aurora’s all-encompassing spell over Edmund and the story as a whole.

Nowak’s other storytelling abilities shouldn’t be ignored. Nowak’s dialogue is economic, evinced when Aurora’s character is revealed in a single phrase—“a woman capable of such devastation.” This appellative, self-inflicted, reeks of self-loathing, but could also represent a desire to die. Aurora’s spell is meant to kill Sasha who, like Aurora, is a fellow witch, and like Aurora, causes great devastation. Could Aurora’s spell mentioned above be meant for herself, to relieve her from a life’s worth of grief and self-loathing?

The illustrations in Graylight are ornamental, but Nowak doesn’t sacrifice comics language just to be gaudy. Sound effects “look” like their sounds, and some, such as baby Edmund’s cries or a cell phone’s ring, even have their own emenata. Word balloons drip during morose dialogue and crackle during radio broadcasts. Musical notes pop out the car radio. Nowak uses visual rhyme: Edmund’s father’s footsteps in the prologue reappear many chapters (and many years) later when Erik and Sasha arrive for the interview. Characters inhabit unstable panels, and sometimes refuse to be encapsulated by the same.

There’s an incredible page during a scene where Sasha and a friend, Nellie, are doing laundry. Nellie is trying on one of Sasha’s shirts. Two panels mirror each other in the top left and bottom right corners; Nellie has her back to us at the top, an inquisitive expression; she hugs herself at the bottom, overjoyed that Sasha offered her the shirt. To get from A to B, Nowak snakes six panel-less headshots, each of Sasha, down the background between the two panels. The cumulative effect is an abundance of facial expression and a pace manipulated by a strange reading direction; the former is a window into Sasha’s thoughts, the latter simply a joy to read.

Graylight is an excellent example of how flamboyance can enhance, rather than impair, a convoluted, magical story. Nowak may not explain everything in the story, but her generous visuals invite the reader to suppose what Graylight is in their own fashion, whether it be a romantic phantasmagoria or a subtle, spell-ridden myth.

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One Response to “Graylight: review by Ian Burns”

  1. […] Ian Burns on the Comics Journal site provides probably the best explanation of Nowak’s complex graphic novel which beckons you […]