Thursday, October 16, 2008

Review: The Shiniest Jewel

Texas-based cartoonist Marian Henley had at least two key ingredients for the making of a strong graphic novel memoir. First, she had a pretty interesting, even extraordinary, story to tell, one which would likely appeal to a fairly wide audience. Second, she was a long-time cartoonist with the necessary chops already well within her possession.

It no doubt helped that a third factor emerged: As the graphic novel market exploded, it inevitably linked to another hot genre of publishing, the memoir, and publisher interest in graphic novel memoirs swelled.

The result is The Shiniest Jewel (Springboard Press), the story of Henley’s adoption of a Russian orphan (The title comes form the unexpected guilt she felt when finally taking her new son from the rather bleak setting of the orphanage; she says she felt like a thief, stealing their shiniest jewel).

Henley’s story begins as she’s psyching herself up to tell her parents about her plans to adopt, something that doesn’t go over too well with her father, on account of the fact that not only is Henley pushing fifty, but she remains unmarried to her much younger boyfriend.

She then jumps backwards to set-up that situation. After happily dating for a while, her boyfriend tells her that he wants a child at some point, and adoption seems the surest way for that to happen to Henley.

Thus begins her story, which is full of emotional ups and downs as she works with an agency to adopt an orphan from halfway around the word, and elements of the bureaucracy are even more suspicious than her own father, given not only her age and technical marital status, but also her profession. Meanwhile, her father’s health wanes, and it becomes clear that just as a new person is about to enter her life, he is on the cusp of leaving it.

For those unfamiliar with Henley’s previous strip work like Maxine! (like I was before reading this), she has a very loose, very minimal style that nevertheless manages to capture everything important in a particular scene.

Her figures remind me somewhat of Jules Feiffer’s—more so for the way they move and the impact wrung from the lines than the actual style—and it can be somewhat remarkable to linger on a panel for a while and realize just how much white space there is left there. The comic doesn’t really look or read all that minimalist, but that’ sonly because Henley gets so much out of the little ink she uses per panel.

The panel borders themselves are all hand-drawn, and the letters also seem to be written by Henley’s own hand (she eschews dialogue bubbles, and rarely boxes narration in). The art would be black and white, if the ink were actually black, but it’s not; it’s blue, and there is no real shading or toning (other than perhaps some cross-hatching here and there to indicate when a room is supposed to be dark).

The result is a graphic novel that seems especially homemade. Were it not for the slipcover and the super-smooth texture of the pages, you might mistake it for a sketchbook Henley put her story into and then left lying around in your reach.

She also takes advantage of the medium in a way a lot of cartoonists doing non-fiction work rarely do, by drawing her metaphors out in the panels. So when she says she feels like an ox, she draws an ox wearing her glasses in the panel, or when she says that she waited for hours for a phone call from the agency, she draws an alarm clock with wings on it, for example.

Henley’s well suited for this sort of autobiographical comic, in large part because she just so happens to have the distinct look of a cartoon character: a high forehead and cheekbones, up-turned nose, seemingly always arched eyebrows and a head of kinky hair. There’s something fantastical, almost Grinch-like to the character design (if the Grinch were a pretty lady and not a green monster, of course), but it’s not an affectation. That’s exactly what Henley looks like in real-life:

In that sense, I suppose you could say Henley was born to make a graphic novel like this. One more instance of the stars having seemingly aligned for the work.

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