Thursday, October 27, 2016

Comic Review: Ghosts

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier


Cat's family is moving to a new town. Ostensibly it's because of her father's new job but the entire family is trying not to talk about the real reason why: Cat's younger sister Maya has cystic fibrosis and the family hopes that this new town will allow her to live a better life. Cat is unhappy with parts of the move of course but she's downright unnerved by her new town's fascination with ghosts and spirits. On it's own this would be an uncomfortable reminder of her own life but when it turns out that the ghosts are real then it just makes everything a little more complicated.

By now I have read four of Telgemeier's books, two autobiographical and two fictional, and I just don't like feel like her pacing in her works of fiction work nearly as well with her memoirs. For me there's two components for why the pacing just didn't work for me here in Ghosts and it didn't work for similar reasons in Drama. The first and most obvious one is that this is a one-shot work! Clearly as both a manga and webcomics fan I am used to pretty large-scale serialized works but even before I got into comics I spent years reading regular middle grade and young adult fiction which also tends to have works spanning multiple installments. If you were to collect and transform all of Telgemeier's words and images into a prose-only work then it would be probably be shorter than even a slim middle grade volume, and I just can't buy into the fact that so much is supposed to have happened and changed within Cat's life in such a short time. 

For me the paneling work in the story also really empathized how oddly quick everything moved. I've noted before that Western comic artists seem to experiment with multi-page spreads far less often than manga-ka do (to the point where I could start guessing how much manga a webcomicker has read purely by their preferred layout styles) and for me these boxy, unconnected parts of the page make it feel as if I'm watching a train carrying containers go by rather than a stream. For me it just reinforces the fact that the pacing isn't working for me and without strong pacing you can't buy into character development, a crucial part of development is how fast it happens!

In general, I felt like Cat fell into the "supposed to be a realistic kid but just brattier than I would have been" category of characters which is one I always find a little awkward. They're similar enough that I know I'm supposed to sympathize but I know I never would have hung out with them in real life and I can feel my cautious inner child just pushing her away for these vague reasons. I almost don't have much to say about her, I felt like the way she was more-fine with ghosts towards the end was predictable but still sudden and unexpected in execution (again tying back into my thoughts on the pacing) and I was much more interested in the younger sister Maya throughout. I really liked that the story is never quite about Maya getting "better," she and her family have moved clearly to try and give her a chance at a healthier life (and I'm sure if they had a way to make it so that Maya didn't need the oxygen tubes etc that they would do it), but as Maya clearly states, she's most likely never going to get better and the implication is that she might not even live a very long life. Like many people I'm bothered when every story about someone with a disability/general health issue is about being "cured" so, as truly sad as those moments are, I really appreciated that Telgemeier didn't shy away from this in the end (even if Maya does fall into the "eternally upbeat yet sickly child" trope, this is why you need longer stories folks, so that the characters have more time to do different things!). 

All in all this is certainly far from a bad book but I do feel rather lukewarm on Telgemeier now that I've established that I only like roughly half of her output. I know she had another story come out this year but since that seemed to have a pretty strong romantic subplot from the descriptions I saw I'll be avoiding that (I also found the general crush on Cat by a side character just really awkward and shoehorned in in Ghosts). I'm glad she's making books and it's great that her books sell so well and reach so many people, but I just wish her stories were ones I could emotionally get behind instead of ones I read more for the principle of the thing. 

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