Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
So … conflicted … about … this … comic …
Shari Chankhamma’s latest graphic novel, The Sisters’ Luck, is published by SLG and costs a meager 12 dollars and 95 cents. On the one hand, this is a gorgeous comic from a creator whose work I have only seen one other time but am now very interested to see more of, and on the other hand, this is problematic as a story for a few different reasons. Let’s delve right in!
Chankhamma is Thai, but there’s a slight manga influence in her work. (I don’t know how big manga is in Thailand or if she discovered it later in life or if the style is uniquely Thai and developed independently of Japanese style, but it’s a bit more prevalent in her short story in Liquid City, which is where I first saw her art.) It’s very slight, and I know I’m using the term “manga influence” as stereotypically as possible – large, expressive eyes and a few places where the characters’ faces become distorted because they’re so emotional. But it’s interesting to see it come through just a bit. As I’ve written before, Chankhamma’s art most closely resembles Becky Cloonan’s, to the point where it’s almost odd. (I’m not implying that either artist copied off the other; neither artist has done a ton of high-profile stuff, and I’m sure their styles developed on their own – it’s just interesting.) Chankhamma draws characters wonderfully – the two sisters in the book, the unfortunately-named Umbra and Antumbra, are identical twins but Chankhamma does just enough so we can tell them apart (even if Antumbra’s hair wasn’t much shorter than Umbra’s). Umbra, the more confident sister, is often drawn with just a slight cruelty in her eye, and she smiles more, which isn’t surprising. Antumbra, on the other hand, has a haggard and melancholy mien (given her circumstances, it’s not surprising). Chankhamma suggests these moods very subtly, and it’s impressive how she can make the two young ladies wear the same face but be completely different people. Even the way they dress is well done – Umbra wears much more free-flowing and sexy clothing, while Antumbra, by necessity (I’ll get to that), wears clothing that cage her and wrap her up. It’s a nice eye for detail with regard to the other parts of people rather than just what their faces look like.
Chankhamma is less successful with the few action scenes in the book, but when it gets a bit more mystical, she is up to the task, and even a fight scene late in the book works pretty well. When Seofon, one of the two “men” in the book, shows Antumbra the way he sees the world, it’s somewhat spooky, as Chankhamma draws wisps of good and bad luck swirling around everyone. When we see Seofon’s “secret origin,” Chankhamma uses negative space tremendously to give us a good sense of it being a flashback and therefore less concrete than what’s happening in the present. She choreographs the fight scene well, too, using a nice double-page spread to show the scope of the fight but also shrinking panels on other pages to help it remain intimate. The only problem with the art is the lack of color – the good and bad luck are supposed to be blue and red, but they’re just black and white, so the impact is a bit less than it perhaps could be, and Seofon and Seis are supposed to be albinos, but we don’t know that because of the lack of coloring – they just look like blond dudes. It’s a very minor complaint, because the good and bad luck is easy to figure out and Umbra herself lets us know that Seofon and Seis are albino, but it’s disappointing that we couldn’t get this in color. Oh well.
The story is less successful, which is a pain because it starts off rather well. We’re introduced to two sisters – Umbra and Antumbra – in different ways: Umbra approaches a celebrity and kisses her, and we learn quickly that she’s stealing the celebrity’s luck. Antumbra tries to board a plane and gets accosted by the guards. When the guard tells her they need to do a full body search, Antumbra (Ane) freaks out and runs for it. A guard grabs her but he’s mysteriously killed (it’s a double-page spread, but it’s unclear how he’s killed). We learn soon that anyone who touches Ane has bad luck soon afterward. She realizes that the only time this didn’t happen was when she was a child and hung out with Umbra, so she finds her sister and begs to live with her. Umbra wants nothing to do with it, though – she seems to know that they cancel each other’s “powers” out, and she’s living high, so why should she voluntarily bring herself down? Chankhamma does a very good job with these two characters – they’re interesting because they’re both being selfish for different reasons, and while she makes Ane more sympathetic than Umbra, how many of us would give up “good luck” if we were asked? We get a sense that something stranger is going on, as Umbra’s manager, Sergio, seems to understand the sisters quite well, but for the most part, it’s a neat family drama with a twist.
Then Chankhamma turns it into a mystical thriller. Ane is almost killed, but is rescued by a dreamy bad boy riding a motorcycle (aren’t all bad boys dreamy?). He tells her that there’s energy flowing throughout the universe, energy that humans call “good luck” or “bad luck.” It’s attracted to people, usually in equal amounts. Because Umbra and Antumbra are twins, they were “supposed” to be one person, but when they split, one attracted the good luck – Umbra – while Ane was stuck attracting the bad. It turns out the motorcycle dude isn’t exactly human, and he and Sergio – whose real name is Seis – are waging a long battle in which Seis has appeared to gain the upper hand, thanks to Umbra’s accumulation of good luck. I won’t ruin it for you, but the book turns quickly into a grand battle between the two, and ends extremely abruptly. I don’t know if Chankhamma has a second volume planned (“the end” is written on the last page), but if she doesn’t, this is a very weird ending.
The problem with the story is that the shift is very abrupt and takes the focus completely off the sisters, who are far more interesting as characters than Seis and Seofon (the motorcycle dude). The women are pushed completely to the sideline, with Umbra doing almost nothing from the moment Seofon enters her life and Ane at least doing a little bit but being completely ineffectual at it. It’s a bit weird – Chankhamma does a very nice job making this a weird psychological drama with a bit of a mystical twist to it, but she abandons it to turn it into a video game battle between two somewhat dull characters. Seis is nice and twisted, but Seofon is there to exposit and, presumably, smolder. If Chankhamma is going to continue the story in a second volume, the direction of the story might make sense, but taken as a discrete whole, this goes in a weird and unwelcome direction, unfortunately.
I still consider it a book you should check out, though – Chankhamma has such a nice style, and for a good part of the book, the story is pretty fascinating. It’s disappointing it goes the way it does, but again, perhaps Chankhamma is planning a sequel. She’s a tremendous talent, however, and I look forward to her next book.
Tomorrow: Tough guys! Darwyn Cooke! What could it be?
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