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A review a day: Graylight

by  in Comic News Comment
A review a day: <i>Graylight</i>

This book came out two months ago, but I waited until I had some other stuff to review so I could do a few days of “reviews a day.” I don’t mind waiting a while with standalone long-form novels, though, because it’s not like the Next Big Event will be spoiled if you don’t read this right away! And there’s some minor nudity below. You can handle it!

Naomi Nowak’s latest book, Graylight, is published by NBM and costs a mere $12.95. I’m extremely torn about this book. I don’t love it, but I do think it’s a work that can be enjoyable. Allow me to explain!

On the recommendable side, Nowak’s art is astonishing (uh-oh, I just gave away what’s not recommendable about it). A quoted review on the back calls it “Pre-Raphaelite,” which isn’t a bad description (it’s actually the coloring of the book that’s called that, but it does apply to the design of the book as well, or at least what I know of the Pre-Raphaelites seems to apply) – Nowak’s art is lush, almost Edenic, with a bold color palette that I hesitate to call “girlie,” but I’m sorry – that’s the word I thought of. Nowak uses lots of deep greens and blues and purples, and she puts her characters deep into nature, so that flowers and butterflies threaten to overwhelm the pages. She designs the book so that each page (or double-page spread) is a complete drawing, eschewing panels quite often to build a page in which the separate drawings bleed into each other, highlighting the riotousness of nature even more. She does use panels, but lays them out on the page so that they crash into each other at jagged angles, overlap each other, and generally look “sloppy” – it’s not sloppy, because Nowak is going for a deliberate effect, but it’s not a “traditional” design or even a frenetic design like we often see in “edgy” comics. It’s much more of a melding of the panels, as Nowak uses the panels like she does the larger splashes – as ways to create a holistically pleasing scene. Nowak’s attention to detail is tremendous, even though it doesn’t, surprisingly, extend too much to her characters. With a few exceptions on a few pages, the characters remain inexpressive, which is rather odd. Occasionally we can see that Nowak can do more with faces, so the fact that she doesn’t is a bit perplexing. Nowak is Swedish, and this book apparently takes place during a northern summer, meaning the daylight lasts most of the day – we get a sense of dreaminess from the endless light, which is a nice trick. Because we get a sense that these people just aren’t getting enough sleep, we get a feel that they are somehow dreaming while they’re awake, and it heightens the sense of strangeness that is pervasive in the book. Nowak’s art is a true treat.

However … the writing doesn’t keep up. Nowak is going for a very impressionistic kind of comic here, which is fine, but she does have a story to tell, and she doesn’t do a great job. She’s telling the story of a young lady named Sasha and the unusual love triangle in which she finds herself. But Nowak, in trying to avoid overexplaining, gives us hardly any narrative whatsoever. What we get is a lot of dreamy scenes where people say things that often have no connection with what anyone else is saying. It’s a tough go. It begins on the first few pages. We see a woman holding a baby, and then we see the father leaving. She then tells the baby that she’ll never let a woman “capable of this devastation” come into the baby’s life, and that he’ll “never end up” like his father. The father then committed suicide. It’s obvious that the father cheated on the mother and she threw him out, which is not a bad way to start the story, but we can already see that Nowak is going more for a mood than anything else. This becomes problematic as we move along.

In the present, we meet a girl named Sasha, who’s a thief. In the woods one day, she meets a man she’s seen hanging around town named Erik, who is off to interview a reclusive author for his newspaper. He invites Sasha to come along as his “photographer,” but the author – the same woman we saw in the beginning – doesn’t like this, and Sasha has to leave … but not before she steals a book from a shelf in the house. The woman’s son, Edmund – the same baby we saw in the beginning – then tries to track down the book, with less-than-desirable results. Sasha is romantically involved with Erik, but Edmund desires her as well. His mother, Aurora, who promised to protect him from women like Sasha, takes some extreme measures. And that’s all I really want to say of the general plot, because I don’t want to spoil it.

Nowak makes us work too much, however. Sasha doesn’t seem to be that evil, despite her thievery. She doesn’t really “act” upon Edmund too much, and Edmund doesn’t seem to fall too far under her spell, such as it is. Sasha’s relationship with Erik comes completely out of nowhere – on one page, they seem to have no connection whatsoever, and the next, they’re naked together, and a few pages later, they’re arguing about whether Sasha should tell her friends she’s in a relationship. This makes the “love triangle” that forms with Edmund even more enervating, because not only do Sasha and Edmund not have much of a relationship, neither do Sasha and Erik. So when Aurora decides to take action, we not only don’t completely understand her motivation (as much as we can figure it out; and Edmund is still a grown man, so maybe she should let go a bit), but we don’t understand why this random girl has raised her ire. There’s a vague explanation, but it doesn’t help too much. This weakens the climax of the book.

Nowak, as I wrote, is counting on us to do a lot of the lifting. That’s fine – more comic writers should do that. She leaves it up to us to make connections, and for the most part we can, but where the writing really fails is with the characterization. If we’re going to infer major plot points, we need to have a clearer grasp of the characters. If Nowak wants Aurora to be seen not as an overbearing mother or a martyr for her child’s happiness but some of both, she needs to do a better job with Aurora herself. If she wants us to care about Sasha and her odd kleptomania, Sasha needs to be more compelling. The love triangle falls apart because all three characters are ciphers, and therefore we don’t feel anything for any of them. It gets back to the Nordic setting – if Nowak is matching the aloofness of the characters with the dreamlike and slightly surreal surroundings, well I guess she succeeded, but it doesn’t necessarily make the book worth reading.

As I always feel when I read a comic by someone who is clearly talented and is also working outside the superhero mainstream, I hate that I don’t like this more. If you’re interested in Nowak’s art, I would recommend it highly. If you’re looking for that art to work in conjunction with a solid story, you’ll probably be disappointed. Nowak has done two other graphic novels, and I’m actually interested in getting at least one to see how her writing is in those. That’s how cool her art is. But on the whole, Graylight falls a bit short. It’s too bad.

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