By Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover
First off – a quick note on that cover. Tim Leong’s design skills really make the book stand out on the shelf, and the clever reversal of the images on the book’s back cover very graphically mirror what we’re about to read inside.
Now mental illness presented as quirky and cute drama doesn’t sound that appetising, but that’s what Gingerbread Girl is going for. And it nearly, so nearly, makes it.
Young Annah genuinely believes she’s got a missing sister, somewhere out there, just out of reach and out of sight. But we’re pretty sure she’s delusional, since her sister, according to Annah, only exists because she was created by her scientist father when he excised one particular part of the young girl’s brain – “the Penfield Homunculus“…… (and yes, it is a genuine thing – thank you Wikipedia)
She honestly, completely believes it too; Ginger was grown from this strangely human shaped grey matter, and released into the world, for reasons she never really thinks about, or at least doesn’t share.
And that’s the starting point for Annah’s personality – that this Gingerbread Girl exists. All we have to decide, all her friends have to decide is whether she could she really be right; does the mysterious Ginger exist, or is it merely the imaginings of a delusional and terribly broken mind?
Full credit to Paul Tobin for the story and Colleen Coover for the art – taking something this deranged and creating a lightweight, quirky as anything comic is impressive. Against this strange little concept, Tobin and Coover hang a modern tale of cute and quirky life, all confused sexuality, difficult decisions, and out and out weirdness.
Annah’s portrayed as high maintenance, flighty, flirty, prone to rash flights of fancy, difficult to pin down, even more difficult to join in anything even amounting to a relationship. Annah blames Ginger for most of this, hiding behind her sister – the one who got all the feelings and emotions, that she’s now incapable of showing.
But most of the cast around her know Annah’s ways, and many of them put it down to a complex and disturbing reaction to her parent’s particularly messy divorce. And although it’s always played light, there’s some seriously messed-up behaviour going on in this young girl’s head.
It’s hard to mix whimsy this sweet with thought provoking, but Gingerbread Girl attempts it, and almost pulls it off. It’s certainly sweet and cute, it’s certainly got that modern romantic comedy drama feel to it.
But the thought provoking is where it falls down slightly. Annah’s posssible / probable / definite (take your pick) mental illness is never really addressed, it’s always pushed too far back in the mix, something to be tolerated, ignored, and almost trivialised…. so many of the conversations about her here could have ended with the trite phrase of “oh, that’s just the way she is“. No more explanation is offered, investigated, or needed by anyone here.
But remember, this is a woman who believes in a ghostly sister, a girl so hideously traumatised by her childhood that the idea of dad experimenting on her is preferred to thinking about the divorce. This is a woman so convinced in the exstence of this Girgerbread Girl that she uses self harm in an attempt to divine her sister…
And it’s a shame we never go deeper into the ideas here, because with a few more pages, with a little deeper delving into her mind we’d have got something really beautifully bittersweet, rather that the cutesy, quirky lightness we read in the 100-odd pages of Gingerbread Girl. It puts in our heads ideas of childhood trauma, of retreat into imagination, of mental fracturing, how a child’s escape can filter through to adulthood, poisoning their ability to interact, socialise, have meaningful relationships.
Just the analysis of how deep the trauma runs and thinking of how terrible it must be to feel so emotionally isolated that you could possibly invent a twin to take the feelings away. Now that’s strong stuff.
But it’s merely danced around here. The dance moves may be enticing, but there’s no substance to them, just empty-ish gestures.
I’m not saying I didn’t like it, it whiled away a very pleasant evening, enjoying what is, at it’s heart a tender, quirky comedy drama – and lord knows we don’t get enough of those in comics.
Coover’s art is very cute. But cute does downplay just how nice her pages are to look at; simple characters set against detailed, flowing backgrounds, all set off prettily by a gentle gold-orange toning on the pages – not something you got in Gingerbread Girl’s serialisation on the Top Shelf 2.0 webcomic site. (It’s still up there if you want to see, but treat it as an inferior preview, not a substitute for buying the book, eh?). She’s a very natural line, creates a lovely gentle flow of her characters as they drift through the book. One of the nicest storytelling quirks on display here is undoubtedly the multiple narrators; each scene focuses on Annah and then drops away, spinning off to someone in her life, whether important or not. The artist’s eye follows the supporting character, as a camera pans away, and they expound on what we’ve just seen, or fill in some back story, either theirs or some aspect of Annah’s. Everyone seems to get a go; boyfriends, girlfriends, shop assistants, passers-by, street magicians, even the pigeons get their turn.
It’s a clever, cute trick. Maybe overused a little, but still works for the most part.
Speaking of overused…. I’ve probably overused cute in this look at Gingerbread Girl, but that’s really the key word here. It should be a mixture of deeply unsettling,disturbing AND cute. I could have done with a touch more bitterness to take away some of the saccharin. But cute and quirky comedy drama still makes this something to pick up and enjoy.