Thursday, November 24, 2016

Olga Volozova's The Green Zybari Stories

Olga Volozova's comics are dense, immersive narratives that are often inspired by Russian folklore and her own vivid imagination. In The Green Zybari Stories, which purport to be "from the diary of Niusha Ramonova", a high school girl's interactions with local, magical creatures has increasingly darker implications with regard to her and her friends. These stories have such a forceful authenticity to them that I wondered how much, if any, of this was adapted directly from Russian folklore and how much came from Volozova's own remarkable imagination. Regardless, the book consists of three separate but chronologically consecutive stories centered around Niusha and her friends. The book opens with Niusha and her best friend Tasya going to the nearby lake to see if they could spot any Zybari: shimmering, green water sprites. Right away, Volozova establishes that there are links between the Zybari and humans, even if both races lived by entirely different understandings of how the world worked.

Each of the three stories begins with a member of the Zybari tricking, violating or strong-arming Niusha into doing something she didn't want. In "Green Zybari", Niusha initially thinks that she can get knowledge regarding a beloved hat that she lost in exchange for a kiss, not understanding the immutable Zybari customs; she effectively became engaged to the Zybari on the spot, and is forced into a marriage proposal by another Zybari passing as human. There are other men in the story and they don't behave well either, but the Zybari represent something worse, something horrible and primordial at the heart of patriarchal systems that utterly ignores the personhood of women and considers them to be objects or slaves that come and go at their behest. Eventually, Niusha appeals to a Zybari elder, who helps her find a way out of her bind. This story felt familiar, with a happy and instructive ending. Volozova's dense art and lettering helped to create a claustrophobic atmosphere with scratchy character designs and blacks filling in blank spaces, but the story didn't go nearly as far as the next two.

"Zybarik" establishes her feud with various classmates, as several accuse her of being a witch. She runs out to the lake and promptly falls asleep and is then raped by a Zybari who sloughs off any responsibility as he informs her she might get pregnant. What follows is a jaw-dropping narrative that's part nightmare, part absolutely endearing, as it only took a week for the Zybari to come to term. Tasya helps Niusha as a midwife as the baby is born invisible, the rest of the story follows his rapid growth, the ways in which the baby boy was mistreated by others, his incredible abilities (like making a time machine), and how she readjusts to regular life when he rapidly grows up and leaves. There's a powerful emotional resonance that rings throughout the story as Volozova closely relates the relationship between mother and son as it develops, even as Niusha is desperately trying not to flunk out of school.

The third story expands the cast considerably and is far more complex, as it is revealed that all humans have various levels of souls, and the most essential is each human's animal soul. After throwing a tantrum over a misunderstanding over something Tasya said, Niusha once again rushes to the lake. She is charged by a spirit at the lake to use a powder to turn one of her rivals into a mouse soul, but she refuses and in turn becomes like a mouse. That leads to her being shunned and ignored by her friends, as she learns her mother and grandmother shared the same spirit. It slowly becomes clear that many of her classmates are not only aware of this magic, they are actively trying to transform others. In a series of twists and turns, Niusha finally gets turned back to normal and reclaims her friendship with Tasya, but she also experiences a great deal of abuse and bullying. Her relentlessly optimistic nature propels her through all three stories, as does her amazing sense of empathy.

The one thing I wished for when reading this book was that it was larger, and in color. While the small scale (4.5 x 8") gave the book a certain sense of intimacy and claustrophobia that aided the stories, it also wound up cramping a lot of the pages and made them hard to understand the action and/or dialogue in each panel. Opening up the page up a bit would have made it breathe better without sacrificing tone. While Volozova is skilled with using black and white art, the greyscale used here doesn't do much to aid the story. Some subtle use of color, perhaps a two-tone wash, would have helped sustain the atmosphere that Volozova was trying to create. Despite that, the almost feverish quality of her storytelling made for an intense and compelling read, with each page bringing forth both new shocks and beautiful expressions of emotion.

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