Whit Taylor, an occasional contributor to TCJ, has been slowly finding her style as both a writer and illustrator. Her newest book, Ghost, represents her most fully-formed project to date. It's an interesting blend of magical realism, self-examination, and brutally honest autobio. The book's formal qualities blend seamlessly with its ideas and emotional content, as Taylor gets at a couple of central nagging questions, namely why is she here and how can her identity be understand apart from her actions? Using a clever and playful central conceit, Taylor goes deep, breaking down her struggles with finding meaning, especially in light of a devastating third-chapter reveal.
The conceit of the book is this: ghosts tell Taylor that she can meet any deceased idol of hers. The how and why is (rightfully) ignored, with the only stipulation being that she can't ask them about the circumstances of their death. Taylor's first choice is Charles Darwin, and she whimsically depicts herself swimming out to the Beagle in a sailor-suit dress and addressing him in modern vernacular regarding religion. Considering Taylor's background in science, Darwin is a fitting choice, but more than just her intense fascination regarding evolution drives the choice. In a highly individualized case of phylogeny recapitulating ontogeny, Taylor relates to the idea of change in herself as a form of punctuated equilibrium--where there's a steady state that lasts for a long time but is affected by periods of rapid change.
Visually, this chapter is a great example of how Taylor's open-page formatting benefits her overall visual approach. She concentrates on figure drawing on most of the pages, leaving behind extraneous or distracting details. However, she goes nuts on some pages in which Darwin and Taylor visit an island, fancifully crafting all sorts of creatures, using what looks like colored pencil to fill in gaps and make the drawings pop. With her figure drawing, she plays to her strengths, as drawing exaggerated facial expressions (especially side-eyeing) is what she does best.
The second chapter sees her meet Joseph Campbell; she chooses a toga to discuss mythology and the hero's journey with him. He encourages her to seek understanding of herself and humanity by not worrying about ontology, but instead holding on to the idea of self-consciousness and the sheer joy of living in each moment. The third idol she encounters is an unexpected one: her own younger self, before she was sexually assaulted. This is a raw, brutal self-examination (and cross-examination, even) punctuated by anger, frustration, fear, and ultimately, survival. Taylor reveals two extremely important keys of recovery: the willingness to ask for help and the understanding that everyone has a story to tell, including herself. And telling that story, and listening to the stories of others, creates and affirms connections and reduces the horrendous feeling of isolation specific to trauma.
As in Tom Hart's Rosalie Lightning, there is no pat ending with everything magically made better. Instead, there are affirmations of humanity and the power of creativity (it is implied that the two interstitial stories in this book, both regarding loss, were created when she chose to be treated at an inpatient facility), as well as a willingness to confront feelings of loss. This book is an expression of grief and a ritual of mourning for something that Taylor lost. It's something she acknowledges she can never get back, but in not denying that grief, Taylor reclaims her humanity. Like Hart's book, Ghost is Taylor's way of working through something devastating, but also a way for her to affirm her intellectual curiosity, her sense of humor, her ability to synthesize ideas, and a platform to display how much she's grown as an artist getting better in public.