Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Molly Ostertag's The Girl From The Sea

In thinking about Molly Ostertag's fantasy graphic novel The Girl From The Sea, it's important to consider three things beyond the work itself. First, there's no other way to describe this book as anything other than frothy, very lightweight entertainment. However, there's nothing wrong with that kind of book; it's the very definition of what the late Kim Thompson would describe as Good Crap. This is a well-drawn and sharply-designed book with a refined color palette and impeccable use of fashion. Ostertag has a lively line that's accentuated but not overwhelmed by color, and her use of gesture in particular is top notch. Second, this is a queer fantasy romance aimed at a young adult audience, and there is absolutely nothing momentous about this. It is now an expectation that this is what YA fiction is going to encompass. As such, and third, a frothy YA book with conflicts that are fairly easily resolved and an utter lack of queer misery is in itself a novelty. This is a book that is ultimately about queer joy and acceptance that doesn't dip into harder questions or unresolved relationships. There are plenty of those kinds of books around (see: Fun Home), and we're reaching a point in comics where stories about marginalized groups don't all have to follow the same miserablist formula.

So as a reader and critic, it's not so much that I wanted bad things to happen to its protagonist Morgan or the selkie named Keltie, or for tragedy to befall them. It's that I felt like I was given the barest but most tantalizing outline of an exciting set of characters, and I wanted so much more. Morgan is a girl living on an island near Canada who is a closeted lesbian, a secret she keeps from even her closest friends. Those friends include the Rich One, the Funny One, and the Shy One, and they serve as little more than a sort of texting Greek Chorus. Despite that, Ostertag embues them with enough personality (and absolutely killer character designs) to make me wish they were more complex and fleshed-out. Morgan's parents are divorced and her brother is acting out. All Morgan wants to do is finish high school, leave for the big city, and then come out and live her life openly. 

That's complicated when she meets Keltie, a selkie. That's a sort of were-seal, who only can become human every seven years and can only walk on land with a true love's kiss. Keltie saves Morgan when she falls into the ocean, and she kisses her. She then pops up and declares herself bound to Morgan. Their interactions are given the most depth and complexity in the book, which makes sense. That said, it speaks to a fundamental flaw in the book's structure. When thinking about a plot, the essential question to ask is this: What does the protagonist want? In this case, Morgan wants to be closeted until she can leave. What is preventing her from doing this? Keltie. The key conflict in the book is also its most central relationship.

Every other conflict in the book--her brother's behavior, coming out to her parents, isolating herself from her friends, and even the tacked-on conflict of Keltie needing to save the seals' rookery--is easily solved and shoved to the side. The only conflict that matter is given a cute romance with a few fights and moments of confusion which are also solved with a hug and an apology. The problem is that the reader is meant to feel as though all of these other conflicts were intractable, but instead they easily melt away. It's wish-fulfillment with the lowest of stakes. Which is fine. Not every romance needs to be life or death. However, The Girl From The Sea had the potential to be so much more than it was, and it wouldn't have taken much of a structural change to get there. 

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