If Only Once, If Only For A Little While, by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. I first noticed Valero-O'Connell's work when she was a first-year at MCAD and she was doing OuBaPo-style structured comics with rules as part of a larger event. The concurrent manga and art comics boom that began roughly around 2000 has had an interesting effect on young cartoonists, especially women. More young women have read comics and manga actually aimed at girls than at any other time in the US since probably around the 1950s. This is not to say that boys and girls don't read and enjoy all sorts of comics, but the way that the superhero comics industry aimed stuff at boys was pretty obvious--especially in the hypersexualized early Image era. Moreover, every year that goes by sees more comics being stocked in bookstores, libraries and school book sales, meaning that the sheer variety of comics available is growing every year. Valero-O'Connell is someone whose work seems clearly influenced by that variety, incorporating aspects of both manga and western comics in her storytelling and her line.
In many respects, she's working in a purely naturalistic tradition. A look at the first page sees three perfect establishing panels, formatted horizontally. The first panel is a carefully-rendered shot of some flowers. The second is a pair of feet and a bicycle seat, clearly fallen next to the flower bed. The third is a beautiful establishing shot of Charlie, her eyes closed and in profile, a sly and relaxed smile on her face. The first panel establishes Charlie's name, the second panel acknowledges an accident and the third introduces both a sense of relief and her best friend via dialogue, Olive. The character design, especially the exaggerated size of both women's eyes, reveal that manga influence. It's actually a bit jarring at times, seeing this juxtaposition of styles, but Valero-O'Connell makes it work thanks to her absolutely sterling layouts. Her use of negative space and her ability to balance elements in a panel is remarkable. Her lettering does get a bit cramped at times, but she chose a really tough route in using both uppercase and lowercase letters. Her use of a grid variation shows an advanced understanding of how form can affect emotional content.
For example, this story of two friends hanging out, enjoying the routine of being with each other day after day, first hits a speedbump on a page where the first three panels on the page are either filled with detail (panel one) or else make extensive use of white negative space (panels two and three). Panel four is at the center of the grid, and it's a disturbing fortune from a fortune cookie that Olive opens that is entirely offset by black negative space. Valero-O'Connell then uses a modified mirror technique, making panel five be a shot of a concerned-looking Charlie and the final panel at the bottom collapsing into a single image that mirrors the first panel, only it zeroes in on Olive at the bottom right corner, with the rest of it taken up by a dragon mural. That fortune is the first of a variety of seemingly supernatural elements, or perhaps hallucinations, from people around her. The rest of the comic follows from that moment, ending as a meditation on death, grief and healing. Valero-O'Connell perhaps lays it on a little thick toward the end as it becomes obvious as to what's going on, but she makes up for that with the last five pages that confront tragedy head-on. Her level of craft and storytelling is as good as it gets for a young cartoonist, and the next step for her seems to be more a matter of refinement and nuance, especially in terms of characterization. She's illustrating a book for First Second that's coming out, and I hope she's coloring it as well because that's yet another strong element in her toolbox. It won't be long before she's writing and illustrating her own books.