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Fleen Book Corner: Anya’s Ghost

For those of you that are in a hurry, I’m going to lead with a tweet I wrote immediately after finishing Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol:

Just finished “Anya’s Ghost” by @verabee & about to read it again. Going to preemptively declare it the best comic of 2011 now.

Not that I was surprised by how much I loved the book; everybody that’s received an advance copy and written or blogged or spoken about it has raved, and when I saw display copies on the :01 Books table at MoCCA Festival, I had to force myself not to pick one up because I knew that I would turn into a booth barnacle, unable to put it down until I’d read it cover to cover. Gina Gagliano at :01 was kind enough to set me up with my own advance copy, which proved my suspicions about the depths of my monofocus were correct. I’ve read this book cover to cover four times in the last 18 hours; it’s just that good.

For those of you that want more than that, read on but be aware: these be spoilery waters. Actually, I’m going to try to keep the plot details to a minimum, because this book deserves to be read with all of its twists and turns intact, but there is an obvious place to start, right on the cover: there is Anya, and there is a ghost — not the ghost of Anya (who is very much alive), but a ghost that decides to hang around Anya. The relationship between the two is one of the core elements of the story, and it shifts in fits and starts (just as relationships do, particularly when you are a teenager and That Way About Things).

But Gary, I hear you cry, I thought you said you would try to minimize spoilers, and now you’re telling us what Anya’s like! No spoilers there — just go back and look at the cover again, and tell me that Brosgol hasn’t distilled the very essence of the disaffected teen into so very few, very simple lines. The slightly slumped posture, the grumptacular shape of the mouth, the affectedly world-weary eyes all convey everything you need to know about Anya (namely, that you already feel sympathy for her mom, and that if Anya ever grows out of this stage she will look back at this part of her youth and cringe).

Now take a look at Anya’s Ghost (she gets a name later, don’t worry) and the contrast in character that’s evident — smiling, one finger up to the mouth conveying some sense of minor mischief or coquettishness, but fundamentally light-hearted and free as much as Anya is heavy and burdened by life.

Except you know from looking at Anya that her burdens aren’t as severe as she thinks they are, and if her outward appearance is quite reflective of reality, what differences might there be between how Anya’s Ghost appears and what she actually is? Mischief comes in many degrees, after all, and ghosts tend to hang around because there’s something they can’t let go of. They want something badly enough to transgress the usual way of things, and having those wants frustrated for how many years before you die, and then how many more afterwards? That requires a determination that few can stand against. The cover image speaks of the battle of wills (and will-nots) that’s brewing in a New England suburb.

(It should be noted here that apart from the incredibly evocative art that Brosgol supplied for the cover, the physical book cover — by the incomparably talented Colleen AF Venable, of whom this page has spoken numerous times — is a thing of beauty. The lines depicting Anya’s Ghost are embossed on the cover, giving a physical reality to her insubstantial existence, and interestingly a physical reality defined by absence. The letterforms that spell out the words Anya’s Ghost are debossed, rising up above the surface of the rest of cover, leaving Anya herself behind and intruding into the reader’s space. The use of layers here echoes the layers of the stories that Anya finds herself navigating and it’s a brilliant design.)

Let’s share one more bit of artwork from the book — this is from the inside front cover, and it’s a damn good example of how well Brosgol can reveal a character’s mood and inner thoughts without using a word. I was particularly drawn to the eyes, and how much can be conveyed by those circles and a few incidental lines. Heck, for most of the book, Anya’s Ghost doesn’t even have pupils, but she’s convincingly portrayed across a range of moods from “innocently needy” to “murderous rage”.

That spectrum of different personalities applies to pretty much all of the characters, whether its “self-absorbed” to “maturing as the result of bad decisions”, “nerdy and annoying” to “I was like you”, “object of aspirational crush” to “what a jerk”, and “why are we friends” to “why are we friends after not being friends for a bit”. The progressions feel natural, unforced, and less the result of changes in the characters than the result of peeling away layers and looking a little deeper.

The only thing about looking a little deeper? Sometimes what we find isn’t pleasant, and sometimes the difference between a ghost (that wants what it wants and will do whatever is necessary to achieve its wants) and the person that ghost used to be is little more than a pulse and a bit of solidity. Surfaces don’t always reflect depths, and learning that lesson turns out to be more important to Anya than all the biology exams and physical-fitness evaluations in gym class. Luckily, most of us learn those lessons with fewer supernatural threats than Anya has to deal with.

So here we are, nearly 1000 words into this thing, and I still haven’t said anything yet about the wicked sense of humor that Brosgol brings to the story¹, about the chill you’ll get down your spine when you see the Crazy Eyes, the little details in Anya’s Russian immigrant home life that make her feel so fleshed-out, or the painfully real path that Anya navigates as a modern teenage girl dealing with social pressures and body issues. I could go on for another 1000 words and still not address these adequately, so let’s just finish up with the facts: Anya’s Ghost goes on sale on 7 June. It is 224 pages long, was written and drawn by Vera Brosgol, and is the best comics work of 2011.

¹ Those unfamiliar with how sharp Brosgol’s humor can be are encouraged to watch her animated short, Snow-bo.

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