Friday, March 20, 2020

CCS Bonus Week: Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan's An Embarrassment Of Witches

Working with her writing partner Jenn Jordan (a medieval history scholar), Sophie Goldstein started her career drawing a webcomic titled Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell. It's a light-hearted, meandering strip about a modern world where every mythological creature and belief system is actually real. It's an enthusiastic, if unfocused, first work for both creators. Goldstein went on to win three Ignatz awards for The Oven and House Of Women. While those comics incorporated genre elements, their downbeat focus was in sharp relief to Jordan's cheery magical environments. That's true for virtually everything I've read of Goldstein in stories that focus on women, bodies, children and childbirth, and personal integrity. In most of these stories, the outcomes are grim at best and inevitably tragic at worse.

It's interesting to see certain hallmarks of her work, like long, severe faces and slightly grotesque figure design merged with the aesthetic and comedic sensibility of her new collaboration with Jordan, An Embarrassment Of Witches. (Top Shelf) While there's plenty of personal and family drama at work here that results in all sorts of awkwardness, all of the characters generally mean well. They make mistakes, harbor grudges, and take people for granted, but this is a cast that genuinely loves each other. That warmth paired with the harshness of Goldstein's designs works well, as Goldstein prevents the story and its characters from being overly cutesy.

The book takes place where magic is real and the subject of ecological and academic study. It focuses on two young women just graduating from college: Rory and Angela. Rory is set on traveling to Australia with her boyfriend to help him with dragon conversation. She's fun, bold, and energetic, but she's also flighty, aimless, and self-obsessed. Angela has a prestigious internship with Rory's mom, who is a famous professor who is an expert in cryptozoology. The plot is set into motion when Rory's boyfriend suggests they start seeing other people, and she runs screaming. Rory hides this from her mom while developing a crush on Angela's new roommate, but Angela discovers that working for Rory's very severe mother isn't what she expected.

Once that's set into motion, there are various betrayals, miscommunications, unrequited crushes, and long-held resentments that finally come to light. What Jordan does best is revealing every character to be human, especially Rory's parents. Rory had long resented her for divorcing her father, but she finds out in the course of the book that it was because he cheated on her. Rory learns that Angela resented her for being selfish and being a bad friend. Part of this plays out in Rory and Angela's familiars squabbling with each other.  Rory has an owl who's very much over her dramatics, while Angela has a bossy hedgehog who steamrolls over her in exactly the same way everyone else does. Everyone learns hard lessons about honesty, sticking up for yourself, and taking the time necessary to find out what they want to do.

The book works because Jordan and Goldstein focus on the characters instead of the background mythology. Also, those mythological and magical elements, like the familiars, prove important to both plot and character development. The minutia of magic is a smart substitute for the particulars of grad school, involving tons of prerequisites and tedious work, frequently with little chance of career success. There are smart thematic elements that are funny and tie the narrative together, like a magical paper fortune teller that not only works but also has a snarky sense of humor. Goldstein's visuals amplify the emotions of each character, from Rory's pleasantly bland features frequently erupting into tears to the softness of some of the character designs being a shorthand for passivity. The severity of Rory's overbearing, demanding mom is perfectly expressed with Goldstein's sharp, angular facial structure; she could have easily been a character in House Of Women.  

Jordan gives her characters a lot of room to make mistakes and say hurtful things, but no one (other than Rory's ex-boyfriend) is a bad person, per se. They are just all people who make bad decisions and then compound those bad decisions because it's hard to reverse course.  The reconciliations at the end of the book feel earned, precisely because they aren't neat or definitive. They take a lot of forgiveness and emotional labor on the part of all the characters involved, along with a willingness to question assumptions. This emotional vagueness makes it a perfect example of post-graduate malaise fiction, one where the creators don't let their characters get away with self-absorption.

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