Saturday, 8 August 2015

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol Review

Anya is a teenage schoolgirl with all the usual insecurities about her weight, clothes, friends, etc. compounded by embarrassment over her Russian heritage. She makes an effort to lose her accent, avoid fatty Russian food, and even tells people her surname is Brown instead of her actual lengthy and complex Russian one. Upset after making another social faux pas, she ditches school and heads off to the park, promptly falling down a dry well where she meets the spirit of a long-deceased schoolgirl called Emily. So begins a strange friendship as Anya sets out to discover Emily’s killer. 

Vera Brosgol’s comic tackles the familiar theme of alienation, where a teenager with a foreign background is trying to fit into American society as well as deal with the twin minefields of high school and puberty. Books like Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel are about the same thing. Russian/Chinese/Pakistani characters wanting desperately to fit in but also conflicted about not forgetting where they come from. It’s not surprising given that America is the great melting pot of cultures, the “great experiment”, but what is surprising is how good all of those comics are despite essentially treading the same ground. 

Brosgol is a comics natural and her storytelling in this medium is near flawless. The panels flow perfectly leading to a well-paced and very satisfying read. Anya herself is very believably written – I expect Brosgol’s own Russian background fed into her character’s – and very likeable and real too. Like most girls her age, she’s not ugly or fat even though she believes she is. Her vulnerability is endearing and her spiky personality is charming. 

Just when I thought Anya’s Ghost was veering a little too close to another “teen girl haunted by a ghost” story, Faith Erin Hicks’ Friends With Boys, Brosgol takes things in an unexpectedly dark and exciting direction as Anya discovers the truth of Emily’s past. 

The artwork was very attractive with confident lines and is perfectly suitable for younger readers. Anya’s very fluidly expressive figure and face reminded me of the animation in Disney’s Aladdin (which makes sense as I later found out that Brosgol’s background is in animation). The “protagonist falls and is trapped in a remote location and meets a magical being” scene probably had a bit to do with it as well. 

As is often the case with comics aimed at younger readers, it is a little didactic but not obnoxiously so. And the message about being proud of who you are and not relying on other people to make you feel good about yourself is a fine one to send to all readers, whatever their age. 

If there’s one negative, it’s purely down to me rather than Brosgol: I’ve read a wee bit too many books like this before and I can’t get as excited over it as I have others. If I’d read this before American Born Chinese, Friends With Boys, and Ms Marvel, I’m sure I’d be more enthusiastic. 

Anya’s Ghost is an excellent comic. Very well-written and skilfully drawn, told beautifully with strong characters and an entertaining story that readers from age 12 onwards will enjoy. Vera Brosgol is an extremely talented cartoonist whose books I will definitely keep an eye out for in future!

Anya's Ghost

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