Thursday, December 21, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #21: Romey Petite, Laurel Holden

Spiderella is an unusual CCS-related project, as it’s an illustrated children’s book, not an actual comic. Of course, while CCS is known to focus on storytelling in comics form above all else, there have been a number of cartoonists who have focused on illustration or illustrated text. (Katherine Roy comes to mind.) While at CCS, the two kicked around this story, which combined aspects of Cinderella and the myth of Arachne but turned out to be something closer to modern YA adventure comics in many respects. It was decided that Petite would write the actual text and Holden would do the illustrations and their accompanying watercolors. The 200 page book is at once a rapid read but also surprisingly dense. It winds up being the first part of an indeterminately long saga, yet it’s also a satisfying read on its own. Petite and Holden create a beautiful storytelling rhythm, where the slightly poetic and slightly silly language that Petite chooses is a perfect match for Holden’s bright colors, exaggerated facial expressions and pointed use of gestural drawing.

The latter is especially important in an illustrated book that’s not a comic. The understanding of the way bodies interact in space that Holden possesses gives each of her pages life, rather than feeling static, and it’s because of the way she poses her characters and has them express body language in the form of pointing, hunching their shoulders, or slyly staring off in a direction counter to all the other action on the page. Holden also totally leans into the fashion aspect of the story, with her creations more than rising to the occasion of silliness (yet still fashionable) that Petite writes. For his part, Petite’s omniscient narrator is funny without being too wacky, informative without spelling everything out, and on top of the narrative while still allowing a digression or two.

The story is about a young girl named Eleanor who has the fantastic ability to sew very quickly and imaginatively for her boss, Minerva. So much so that Minerva keeps her locked in an attic, where Eleanor is happy because she can at least talk to her friends, the spiders. That mix of sweet and creepy (it’s rare that spiders living in someone’s hair is considered to be a nice thing in literature) also serves to make this book distinctive. While much in the narrative is made to be deliberately familiar, Petite clearly is interested in subverting typical fairy tale narratives in other ways. When the King and Queen of the kingdom decree that their son, the Prince, must get married, they declare a Royal Ball so that a proper bride can be chosen. That all sounds pretty boilerplate, but Petite greatly deflects expectations at the ball and especially with regard to the Prince. The ending of the story in particular is a happy one, but in a manner that’s not common for typical fairy tales, although Petite had been hinting at it throughout the book. What Spiderella wanted more than anything was a chance at adventure (and being reunited with her father, also an adventurer), and she earned that chance. And when the Prince runs after her in this book, it’s not to guarantee her a life of luxury like in Cinderella, but rather to beg to get away. I read the first twenty pages of the book to my daughter, a sometimes squirmy listener, and she demanded more. I read the first seventy pages out loud and she was rapt with every page and made all sorts of predictions as the story proceeded.

(This drawing is by K.M. Claude.)

Also reviewed is a sketchbook rough in Petite’s My Biblical Daydreams series, entitled “Clear As Day”. The story is about a writer who’s apparently had a drunken encounter with a woman named Theda who expects him to show up somewhere. The fact that he can’t quite recall everything the way it was precisely recorded bothers him as a writer. He wanted perfect, clear memories. So Theda talked to him about this and gave him water from the River Lethe, the Greek underworld river of forgetfulness. (Its name means “oblivion”.) It was good ol’ Death playing a little prank, as the water put his memories where they could never be touched again, and she promised to come back later for the rest. (Petite didn’t specify that this was death, but the anagram and other clues made it obvious.) This was a clever short story with great character design, and the modern touches were effective in deflecting the story’s true aim until just the right moment.

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