As insufferably precious as Sara Varon's comics can seem at first glance, they're frequently suffused with a melancholy that belies their outward cutie-pie nature. Most of her books deal with the tricky nature of friendship, both our essential human need for connection and companionship and also how we often define our own identity through our contact with others. She rarely sugarcoats these relationships, either -- Robot Dreams had a rather nasty betrayal at its focal point after all. That all can seem like heady stuff for an all-ages book, but Varon smartly refuses to delve too deep into psychology blather, preferring to keep the actions and visuals as simple and self-explanatory as possible.
Bake Sale is set in a food-anthropomorphic world (albeit one with dogs, cats and people) and focuses on a cupcake that runs a bakery. Yes, I know, but bear with me here. The cupcake, called, appropriately enough, Cupcake, dreams of traveling to Turkey with his friend Eggplant to meet the world-famous pastry chef Turkish Delight, and starts scrimping, saving and working overtime in order to afford a plane ticket. But then circumstances forces him to give up his ticket in order to help his friend.
And it's here that Varon shows how she's a much smarter and tougher author than first appearances would suggest. In a simpler book, Cupcake's generosity would be the main point of the tale and the book would end with a happy moral about being selfless spelled out in big glowing letters, smiles all around. That's not the case here. Cupcake actually suffers a bit for his generosity. His confidence and self-esteem falters and his bakery skill suffers, as though bereft of such a consuming dream and missing his friend, he doesn't know what to do with himself. It's this sort of emotional honesty and willingness to let if not dark, at least sad moments happen that makes Varon's work worth reading. Plus, she draws a really cute cupcake.
Friendship, self-esteem and maturity are also the themes of Anya's Ghost, though unlike Bake Sale, it's aimed at a slightly older audience (there's smoking and intimations of budding sexuality).
The book's title character is a sullen, self0involved teen (and Russian emigre) who accidentally and quite literally stumbles upon the ghost of a girl about the same age, though many centuries dead. Although understandably creeped out at first, Anya discovers the ghost girl makes for a useful, if somewhat needy, friend, capable of getting test answers and helping her hook up with the school dreamboat. Soon, however, the ghost's friendliness takes a rather sinister turn and Anya starts to wonder whether the supernatural friendship comes at an unsustainable price.
This is Brosgol's first major comics work, apart from some entries in the various Flight anthologies, which makes the book's confidence, stellar pacing and insight all the more remarkable. You don't expect someone to produce a graphic novel this good right out of the gate. Brosgol doesn't hit a single wrong note here -- she understands her characters and their motivations intuitively and conveys them to the reader not through reams of expository dialogue but via subtle body gestures and facial expressions.
What's more, Brosgol has an appealing, big-eyed, round-headed, thick-lined style that I adore, especially in some of the smaller scenes -- the way Brosgol makes Anya just a bit hippy so you can tell she has body image issues; the ghost's gradual transformation from mousy and meek to controlling and aggressive; the scene where Anya realizes her teen crush is a bit of a dirtbag. Despite it's fantasy trappings, Anya's Ghost, like Bake Sale, isn't content to merely offer up conventional plot points and safe, easy-to-swallow platitudes, but attempts to say something authentic about identity and self-esteem but without coming off as didactic or simpering. It's one of the best books I've read this year.