Often, when the work of an emerging cartoonist starts to gain attention, it is useful to consider their most recent work prior to their breakthrough comic. Rosemary Valero-O'Connell is not only gaining praise for illustrating the Mariko Tamaki-written YA book Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me published earlier this year, but she's also signed with First Second for two books of her own. Prior to that, she's released an impressive series of mini-comics, including one for Zainab Akhtar's ShortBox, What Is Left.
I've described Valero-O'Connell as the comics equivalent of a five-tool baseball prospect. She has total control over a beautiful, fluid line and can work in a variety of styles. (One look at her contributions to the zine 69th Circle of Hell will confirm that!) She's a sensitive writer who creates emotionally evocative characters. She can craft dialogue and situations with a fine degree of verisimilitude as well as write in a more poetic style. Her page and panel design are innovative and eye-catching without overwhelming the characters or narrative. She's a fine letterer with a distinctive hand. Above all else, her color sense is immediately eye-catching, especially when she works in her favored variations of pink and lavender. Like many young cartoonists who take their craft seriously, she's also extremely productive. If Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me was the comics equivalent of a PhD on their way to crafting longer, more complicated books, this earlier release, What Is Left, is the equivalent of a master's thesis.
Valero-O'Connell usually works with genre trappings overlaying her more prominent emotional narrative, and that's again the case here. In a single page, Valero-O'Connell gives the reader all they need to know about the story's premise. In the future, spaceships are powered by a single human host's memories. Crucially, she notes that the process is relatively new, having recently been approved for commercial use. On page two, the ship naturally crashes. The rest of the story isn't one of survival and rescue; instead, it's a story about memory, loneliness, and the desperate need for connection.
The unnamed main character, the sole survivor of the crash, was saved by falling into the pod of the memory host donor. The effect is that the survivor feels like they are literally inside that person's memories, only the donor can't communicate with them in any way. This is where Valero-O'Connell's skill with dialogue comes in, as the memories of the donor's life are painfully evocative because of the simplicity of their daily life. To the survivor, who came from a burned-out planet, the donor's memories of a lush, green, existence are heavenly. Many of the memories are emotionally painful, and the survivor can't help but try to console this image that is utterly, devastatingly unaware of her.
There's one sequence where the survivor apologizes for intruding, and the donor seems to smile at her, looking her right in the eyes. For a single miraculous moment, it seems as though a breakthrough has occurred. However, the donor was smiling at a drink and reaches right through the survivor. This was done by stacking an image of the smiling donor as a single horizontal panel atop a panel of the surprised survivor. The bottom stack is split in two, revealing the reality of the situation.
The survivor spends most of the comic engaging in a monologue that she increasingly, desperately wishes to be a dialogue. Without engaging in histrionics or having the survivor utter the words "I love you," it's clear that this is a love story. The survivor isn't just in love with the donor; she's in love with every aspect of her life: her world, her friendships, her pain, and her capacity for love. At the same time, the survivor notes that this level of engagement isn't conducive for survival. At a certain point, she's beyond caring that she's cracked, happy to simply be with the donor and in her sustaining memories. Valero-O'Connell intimates that this is the first time the survivor has allowed herself to ever truly feel.
That's what makes the end of this comic so painful. What should be a happy ending isn't, and the reader is left with her tears. Her moment of happiness, no matter how illusory and solitary it really is, is gone. There's nothing she can do about it. What occurs next is irrelevant, because the title reflects not just on memories, but what happens when you are forced to leave them behind. It's an interesting twist on things because when trauma occurs, one's memory can often act to blunt the memory if possible. Instead, her trauma pushed her into someone else's memory for comfort, allowing her to come to truly grapple with how she was living.
Relatively speaking, this is an unassuming work in terms of scope. Valero-O'Connell explores a single idea in-depth, with warmth and humanity. This fits with her work to date: conceiving of and (crucially) finishing modest works and making the best possible versions of those comics. In terms of style and skill, she's a fully-formed cartoonist, having transcended her influences quickly and developing an approach that is equally at home for commercial projects as well as personal ones. It will be interesting to see what she does in her next two solo books for First Second.