Gingerbread Girl original graphic novel
Writer: Paul Tobin
Artist/Cover artist: Colleen Coover
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Price: $12.95 US
I pre-ordered this softcover graphic novel because I’m a big fan of artist Colleen Coover’s work. I didn’t even bother to find out what the story was about before committing to its purchase, so the subject matter was a complete surprise as I made my way through the first few pages of the book. To describe writer Paul Tobin’s plotting and narration choices as unique and unconventional would be an understatement. At first, the storytelling approach and the odd idea at the heart of the story struck me as a bit off-putting, but the premise and the narration quickly started to grow on me. What’s really appealing about this book are the character studies. While the focus is on Annah, the main character, the repeated jumps from one narrator to another offer the writer an opportunity to explore a number of secondary or even inconsequential characters in an unusual way. Of course, the book’s greatest strength is Coover’s charmingly sweet yet ever-so-slightly saucy artwork. Publishing information in the front of the book categorizes this as a mystery book, and it’s a fitting label, as there are no definitive answers but a satisfying read nonetheless.
Portland, Oregon resident Annah is a bookstore clerk in her mid 20s who’s unlike just about any other person you’ll meet. She’s sexy, quirky and passionate, but she’s also a little manipulative impulsive and callous. Of course, those qualities aren’t what make her so unique. You see, Annah believes that she has a long-lost sister out there somewhere in the city, a sibling grown from a part of her brain responsible for touch. The result of an experiment by her scientist father, the sister, dubbed “Ginger,” has been Annah’s obsession for years. The question for Annah’s girlfriend (and others in her life) is clear: is Annah mentally ill, or is there something to her bizarre claim?
The above synopsis of the story makes the book sound quite seriously and even melancholy, and really, it’s much more carefree and light in tone overall. Yes, there’s a sense of melancholy that creeps into the narrative from time to time, but the dominant atmosphere is a positive one. Of course, with Colleen Coover providing the artwork, how could it not be? Her characters are always cute and charming. Even the more nefarious figures (such as the con artist/fortune teller who occasionally serves as the narrator) is appealing in his own campy way. Coover has opted not for black-and-white artwork here or full color. Instead, we get a monochromatic approach, not unlike what we’ve seen from Darwyn Cooke with his Parker graphic novels. She’s opted for a dull brown tone to add texture and depth to the visuals. It’s an unusual choice, given the lighter, airier qualities of her line art and figures. It doesn’t work against the storytelling, but I’m genuinely curious what more of a pastel tone might have added to the book.
Tobin repeatedly moves the responsibility of narration from character to character, and he doesn’t limit himself to just the people who cross Annah’s path. It’s odd that the characters in the story become semi-omniscient narrators while still maintaining their own personalities and plotlines. At first, it was a little jarring, but it’s also an interesting experiment. By the end of the book, the reader becomes much more comfortable with how the secondary characters break the fourth wall to further the plot and explore Annah’s character.
The bizarre concept at the root of Annah’s dysfunction/illness is one that’s actually aided by exploration in the medium of graphic storytelling. Only in comics would the notion of a growing a person from another’s Penfield Homunculus gain any kind of credible footing. The openness and earnestness of the narrators also help to convince the reader of the slim possibility that Annah isn’t crazy or deluded.
Ultimately, it’s clear what’s really driving Annah’s belief: mental illness, to a certain degree. Tobin’s script gives the reader all of the information he or she needs to determine the origins of the protagonist’s delusion. A dysfunctional childhood and a sense of detachment from her family have led to her invent another family member to which she’s forever linked on a deeply emotional and even physiological level. Nevertheless, her delusion leaves her removed from that source of solace. It seems clear to me that it’s just representative of a larger trend in her life. While she yearns for love and connection to other people, she subconsciously tries to drive away people who care about her. She’s learned from her parents that love means risking pain, and she denies herself personal fulfillment to avoid that pain. 7/10
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