It is a too infrequent pleasure to pick up a book by an artist I am unfamiliar with and be delighted by it. Too often comics are so cliched and dull and I take a chance on them and then wonder why I even bothered.
But sometimes marketing works… sort of. I first heard about Borja Gonzalez's A Gift for a Ghost from an excerpt published right here at The Comics Journal. Unfortunately that excerpt does not really showcase the qualities of this comic I found so interesting. Even visually, those pages are mostly monochromatic, not conveying to a potential reader how well the vibrant warm colors integrate with the cool blue/green monochromes featured in those pages, not to mention the large pools of black. I did not pick up the book just from reading that except, instead learning elsewhere a little more about it, past the banal sounding ad copy that makes the story sound much more direct than it is.
Having read this book multiple times I have found something new to strike my interest each time, and if in the end I don't think I have all the answers to the narrative mysteries, I do end up with a feeling when I close the book, even without totally understanding what it is. This is an oddly mysterious book. (And I should state right now that I will to a certain extent be giving away aspects of the plot, and my interpretations of same that could constitute spoilers if you are concerned about such things.)
It is a truism in comics that they should be clear and easy to understand, both visually and narratively. The form grew out of newspapers and pulps, mass media meant to be read by the masses (and often children) and thus art is iconic, simplified, characters are easily differentiated and stories are linear, with consistent beats and a plethora of narrative cues (see: the ubiquitous and unnecessary narration in so many comics). This is still the overwhelming norm in all types and genres of comics from superheroes and manga to contemporary "literary" (if I dare call it that) graphic novels.
Clarity can take a number of forms: representationally, such that the reader looks at a drawing and it is clear that that person is character A and that thing is a car and that thing is a tree; sequentially, person A in panel 1 is talking to person B in panel 2, person A left the room and walked home; narratively, x meets y, w betrayed q because of z, scene 1 happens before scene 2 happens before scene 3. Most comics strive to be clear in all these senses, a frictionless reading experience.
And this can be well and good, leading to a pleasant time enjoying a comic, but many of the comics I like best and reread most frequently do not offer such clarity in some or all of these forms. This is probably most prominent in works with unusual visual styles (especially those that draw upon influences other than comics) or with no or limited narrative (comics poetry for instance, or abstract comics).
What is more unusual is a comic with a clean visual style and a strong narrative focus to work against such clarity, to offer room for interpretation, to not spell everything out. Such a work is A Gift For a Ghost.
The various user reviews of the book (take a look at the lower starred reviews on its Goodreads page) are a clear indication of the books less than clearly explained plot, which is exactly one of the aspects of it that I found so great. If you want a comic with a story that has all the signposts to let you know exactly what is going on then this is not the book for you.
The plot focuses on two characters in two time periods. Teresa is a young gothic-obsessed woman in 1856. While she wants to write poems about ghosts and aliens and death, her mother wants her to write something nice and normal for her society coming out. Her older sisters are constantly berating her (and telling on her) for not being “normal”, and her younger sister is both interested and repulsed by Teresa’s imagining. In 2016, Laura is a teenager who likes to wear costumes and has started a punk band with two friends (Gloria and Cristina). She writes weird lyrics mixing the gothic and science that no one really understands.
The ad copy for the book and most reviews call these two time periods "parallel," but the more I read the comic the less I feel this description is apt. The narratives are not running side-by-side and never meeting, rather they are intersecting at various points in ways that do not easily work with the concept of linearity both in plot and time. As one reads the comic, it is clear there is some kind of crossover between the time periods and the two protagonists, Teresa and Laura. This is a fantasy... not exactly a portal fantasy (no one goes to another world), not exactly an urban fantasy (no vampires or monsters in the “real” world), and not exactly a time travel fantasy. It is in its way a kind of surreal time travel ghost story, where the “ghost” of the title may not be somehow who was alive and died, but rather someone who isn’t alive yet.
The first scene in the book finds Teresa, out walking at night in her nightgown, coming upon a human sized skeleton crying next to a lake. They talk a bit, they look at the stars, and then the skeleton (feeling a bit less sad) disappears. On first reading the whole thing feels under explained: where did the skeleton come from? Who/what is it? Where did it go? But the story provides clues and possibilities as it continues, never exactly explaining, but never not offering room for the reader to guess and interpret. It’s fairly easy to get to the point of seeing the skeleton as Laura, the girl from 2016. But why is she a skeleton and not a girl in a costume? And Teresa refers to the skeleton as “he” which confuses the issue. What is she basing that assertion on? Voice maybe? With this first scene, the concept of some kind of fluid time is opened up, but oddly (unless you are reading this review and getting spoiled), that conception does not arise until later in the book. You have to go back and reread, which is in itself a form of narrative time travel.
In both timelines there are certain anachronisms to be found. A poem Teresa recites for her mother is clearly a slightly altered version of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” from 1977 (and yes, that song is referencing the comic book character). Her gothic imaginings also include aliens and other things that feel too modern for her time. In the 2016 storyline, the posters and pop culture references that adorn the girls’ walls and conversation also all feel out of time, decades behind in most cases (The Cramps, Thee Headcoats, old monster movies, even a cassette tape). But these anachronisms are a purposeful element, as the story itself is not without elements of time distortion. These have an odd relation to the fantastical elements of the story. If the protagonists are somehow communicating across time, then why would other aspects of the world not be any less chronologically confined.
To accompany this twisting narrative, Gonzalez uses a very clean drawing style and a fairly conventional use of layout and sequencing. Unusually, for a story focused on characters and emotions, he draws his characters with no faces and almost always at a consistent full body (except the feet which tend to be just below the panel border), eye level view. This view has an old comic strip, actors on a stage, style, that is reinforced by the flattened depth of the backgrounds and foregrounds. But Gonzalez gets a lot of expression out of his faceless characters, a great indication of his visual skill. You can quickly forget that the characters are small faceless figures as they never feel stiff or distant.
While I like Gonzalez's art style, it is sometimes hard to tell the girls apart since they do not keep a consistent model, especially the two lesser used girls in the band. Their hair color is a primary distinguishing feature, but due to the shifting color palettes in the art, it is not always clear. This improved on rereading, but on first read I found myself often a bit confused on which character was which, a lack of clarity that I do not think was purposeful.
The consistent use of the same point of view on the characters could easily become monotonous, but Gonzalez breaks up the “action” such as it is to elucidate aspects of the scene, to wander around, which at times feels rather manga-esque and works wonderfully to break up the very consistent use of character framing.
Some of these wandering panels focus-in on plants, which often look made-up or so abstracted as to be mysterious, which adds a certain element of estrangement and alienation to the visuals. An interesting example is right on the second page, a small panel at the bottom, it shows a bunch of curvy red blossoms framing a dark circular shape with a much smaller white shape inside it. In my reading it might be the moon in the sky, but it also might be some kind of watching animal eye (both readings work with the dark gothic setting). It’s hard to know if it is ambiguity or lack of drawing clarity... is it purposefully or not? There are aspects of the reading experience that are hard to tell. How much did Gonzalez want things to be unclear and ambiguous and how much is it just a failure? I'd like to think the former because I am quite taken with the ambiguity. I find this similarly to be the case with some of the plot points and symbols.
I already mentioned the coloring, but it is worth reiterating how lovely the rather simple flat coloring is. The palette itself, green/blue monochromes with pops of warm reds and oranges and yellows, works both to convey time and place, but also elements of the narrative that need focus or stand out from their surroundings. This is particularly relevant to a few possibly fantastical parts of the story such as a number of red butterflies that have some significance I cannot quite work out and a golden yellow cat who seems to cross over the time periods. Often the colors seem like just a signifier of delight and wonder: the butterflies, the cat, or even Laura’s Velma costume.
The almost monochrome pages are frequently used for mood, when Teresa's mom is chewing her out about her poetry, the color drains from the page and Teresa, in her imagination, steps away from the scene into a grey world.
There is a frequent motif of a parallel reflection in water, shown mirrored in the panel top-to-bottom, that is used on the cover in a more explicitly metaphorical way: the ghost figure is reflected below as Teresa the girl from the 19th century. In the book itself this mirroring is always very exact (a little too exact for my tastes, if you look at it, it is clearly a computerized duplicate rather than a new part of the drawing). This mirroring of the two girls is obviously a major theme of the book, but their similarities would be easier to see if Laura, the modern girl, were more clearly shown as having a... stifled existence. Teresa is clearly having issues because she is falling outside the expectations of her parents and siblings and society in general. We do not see 2016 Laura in such a situation. She wears costumes regularly (surely an indication of some kind of alienation from her identity) and fights a bit with her bandmates, but there is nothing to grab onto to understand why she feels the way she does. She seems to have quite a lot of freedom, she can afford all those costumes and clearly no one is stopping from walking around in them (as I suspect many parents would), and she's got friends, and she's started a band with her friends (and they have instruments, or at least a guitar and a keytar (one more weird anachronism for their 2016 setting, in my opinion). It would have added another level to the narrative and the emotional resonance, I think, to get some better sense of her alienation.
That said, this criticism should not draw away from how much I enjoyed reading and rereading (I read this comic at least 4 times now) A Gift for a Ghost. It's an unusual and enjoyable read, with a delightful clean visual style, a charming narrative, and enough ambiguity in both to allow the reader to do a little work in trying to piece it all together. I look forward to seeing what Gonzalez does next and hope this book does well enough that there will be a translation of whatever it is.