The cover of Brenna Thummler's Sheets is a witty visual juxtaposition. The image shows a clothes drier face on, so that you can see through the closed window into the machine. A cartoonish Halloween ghost stands in the interior framed by the circular opening, it's round black eyes wide, looking out at you.
A ghost in a washing machine makes you think about a ghost as a surface; it's a sheet without anything under it. That's a fiction—ghosts don't exist. But it's also the actual truth of the image, which is simply a flat drawing. What you see is what's there; a representation. There's nothing deeper to touch.
That self-reflexive shallowness is indicative of Thummler's graphic novel as a whole, for better and worse. Thummler is a young creator, but she's already gotten a number of high profile gigs, including drawings for the New York Times and Washington Post. Her skill, when utilized as here in the interest of an unambitious narrative, can come off as glib. But Thummler's also attuned to the limitations of the comics form in a way that adds resonance to a story about grief and loss. Sheets is a comic that doesn't quite connect, while also using comics as a metaphor for the things you wish you could touch, but can't.
Sheets is a fairly standard YA coming of age story, which combines realism and fantasy deftly, if somewhat predictably. The main character, who narrates most of the story in first person, is Marjorie, a high school student who is (you guessed it) awkward and picked on by her peers.
Marjorie's mother died recently in a freak drowning accident; her father is distant and incapacitated by grief. Marjorie struggles to keep the family laundromat running by herself. She is hindered in this by the machinations of the portly and ominously mustached Mr. Saubertuck, who wants to sabotage the business so he can use the location for a yoga studio. A tall-tale telling young ghost named Wendell first makes Marjorie's job more difficult, and then becomes her ally. Wendell also, inevitably, died by drowning, just like Marjorie's mother. Finally, (you guessed it) there's a budding romance for Marjorie off to the side with a cute, popular boy, who's waiting around patiently for the happy ending.
Thummler's conclusion cleans up all the story's messy emotions with decisive aplomb. The best parts of the graphic novel, though, use the comics form to suggest emotions that are less easily scrubbed.
The first image of the book, for example, is a dramatic two page spread showing Marjorie at her job in the laundromat. The left hand page is entirely blank except for a narrow strip of blue on the bottom indicating the floor. The right hand page is also mostly blank, save for Marjorie, isolated on the center right, struggling with a large, vaguely human shaped sheet. It's a striking visual encapsulation of the themes of the novel, as Marjorie's body and face are obscured by a sheet that stands in for both the job she hates and her mother, now a ghost.
The white laundry against the white background also neatly links the ghostly sheet to the paper sheets used to make the comic itself. Marjorie's hands grip and wrestle with a body that is doubly absent; it's just a sheet, and it's just a sheet. The story eventually has Marjorie meet some ghosts and get a hold on them. But that first image is an unsettling reminder that in a comic, no one is actually holding anything.
Another of my favorite moments in the book is (again) a double page spread showing a black and white image of the town from up above, with neat rows of box houses. Figures in sheets walk down the streets, or sit at the bottom of slides, or chat with each other in backyards. The graphic novel is set on Halloween, and when you first see the image, it seems like it's showing kids dressed up for trick or treating. As you read the next page, though, it becomes clear that these aren't kids, but actual ghosts, wandering through the city unbeknownst to Marjorie or her still living peers.
It's a canny use of the comics form to create a small narrative surprise—in a cartoony drawing, a "real" ghost and someone pretending to be a ghost look much the same. And the fact that you don't know what you're seeing, exactly, is a reminder again that these sheets are just surface marks on a page; the ghosts, like the people, aren't there. Looking down at the page makes you want to look up to see who is gazing down at your own flattened life, and whatever memories float across it.
One of the last images in the book shows Marjorie and Wendell running into the ocean together, simultaneously confronting their fears of water and drowning. The water fills the page, with the girl and the ghost towards center bottom, splashing along. It's a liberating, joyful scene.
It's also unnerving. Marjorie's standing in the water holding onto a sheet which is holding itself upright; there's nothing there. If this is Marjorie reconciling with the memory of her mother, that reconciliation is still uncanny—a sheet shaped absence in the water. The drawing looks odd in a way that reminds you that it's a representation. The image says, at one and the same time, that Marjorie has found her mother, and that she hasn't.
You could say that Thummler's words tell a story of overcoming grief, while her pictures are less hopeful. That's a little too neat, though. Sheets is meant to be a bittersweet story. Thummler uses genre tropes and expectations to contain and rationalize her character's pain. But she also wonders if those tropes and expectations are real, or just ghostly lines, wavering on the page.