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Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Gingerbread Girl was originally serialized on-line, but as you know, I don’t love reading comics that way, so I bought the collected version from Top Shelf for the low low price of $12.95. Frankly, Coover’s art is almost worth the price of admission!
Gingerbread Girl is a deceptively deep comic, one that we think is going to be a rather delightful tale about a flirtatious young lady named Annah but reveals itself slowly as a treatise on identity, love, relationships, and if a person’s history is relevant in forming their personalities. It’s not a depressing book, by any means, as Tobin and Coover make sure that the story is tinged with humor and heart, but it is far more moving than you might expect when Annah first appears on the scene, breaking the fourth wall and telling us that she’s a tease and that, on this night, she has two dates – one with a woman, one with a man – and whoever shows up first gets to take her out. The woman, Chili, shows up first, so they out for a night on the town. The entire book takes place on this one night, but Tobin inserts plenty of flashbacks to fill in some of Annah’s backstory.
The clever way he does this is to have many characters narrate the story, all of them speaking directly to the reader. It’s not a unique trick and it can be trite, but Tobin does it with enough cleverness that it works. It allows Tobin to cram quite a bit of characterization into the book without staying focused on Annah, who, frankly, might be a bit much to take. So we see her through various filters and perceptions, which ties into the larger theme of the book. It also gives the book some of its humor – a pigeon narrates some of the book, and when it loses the thread (because it gets distracted by breadcrumbs on the ground), a random guido shows up and simply gets us back on track, even though he doesn’t know Annah and doesn’t care about her story. Some of the narrators reveal as much about themselves as they do about Annah, another nice trick. Given Annah’s condition (I’ll get to that), we figure out very early on that she may be a very unreliable narrator, so it’s a good idea for Tobin to shift away from her to tell her story. Of course, while we know Annah is unreliable, can we be sure about the others? That remains a question throughout the book, because Tobin wants it to be.
The major problem in Annah’s life is that she doesn’t experience feelings and emotions like others do. Chili (and others) explain that her father, a “mad scientist,” separated her from her cortical homunculus, the section of your brain that records sensory input (Tobin calls it the Penfield homunculus, after its discoverer). Her dad turned this homunculus into a “real” girl that Annah calls Ginger, and the two were like twins, with Ginger acting as the repository for feelings and emotions, while Annah was unable to feel anymore. Then Ginger disappeared, and Annah’s been looking for her ever since. As Chili points out, her father separated the homunculus about the time he and his wife were getting divorced, which couldn’t possibly have anything to do with how Annah perceives the world, could it?
Tobin cleverly doesn’t paint Annah as simply crazy, even though some people call her that. Certain clues keep coming up that point to Ginger being real and staying away for a very good reason. Meanwhile, Chili tells us that there are no pictures of Ginger in Annah’s apartment, but there are none of her parents, either, and her father disappeared not long after the divorce. So who’s real? This is the crux of the book – Annah is real, obviously, but where did she come from? Why is she the way she is? Tobin is asking questions about identity, because he wonders if where we come from really matters. Chili does wonder where Annah came from, but ultimately, she knows Annah about as well as Annah herself does. Even as we might think Annah is crazy, Tobin wants us to consider whether or not her “madness” is a sane response to her world and that it, in fact, keeps her sane. And, of course, if Annah is really so different from any of us.
Coover, as usual, is tremendous. Her details in showing Annah’s world are wonderful, and she easily zips into the abstract to show the turmoil of Annah’s mind. The characters are beautiful because they look like regular folk, and Coover has a lot of fun inserting the narrators into Annah’s story. Her faces are minimalist, but she is still able to convey a wide range of emotions through them. The way she hints at Ginger’s presence throughout the book is very well done, too. Tobin’s script adds some humor to the proceedings, but Coover adds far more, just enough to keep the book light instead of a dissertation on neuropathy, which might get a bit dull. Coover’s marvelous art helps steer us through Tobin’s lectures (which never last long) and keep the focus on Annah and her joyous night with Chili.
Gingerbread Girl is one of those books that lingers, because it’s so beautiful and haunting. We want answers about Annah, and Tobin gives them to us – not the ones we expect or even want, but the ones that we need in order to ponder his themes better. Gingerbread Girl is not a dry tome about neurology or psychiatry, but it does raise questions about ourselves and how we invent ourselves throughout our lives and how that helps us cope with trauma. It’s a fantastic comic that looks great, and I encourage you all to check it out. Plus, it takes place in Portland, which is of course the greatest city in the United States, so there’s that!
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