written & illustrated by Vera Brosgol
First Second (2011)
ISBN (Paperback) 9781596435520
Neil Gaiman blurbed about this graphic novel, saying it was "a masterpiece." I didn't adore it quite as much as that, but I'll readily admit that it was really, really good. A Russian teen named Anya is about as snarky as you get. She's annoyed by her little brother, embarrassed by her Russian heritage (having taken speech lessons to drop her accent), constantly evading her mother's fatty home-cooking, constantly avoiding the other Russian kid in school who is a target of bullies on a daily basis, has a crush on one of the cutest guys in her private school, her only friend is an Irish tomboy with a bigger nicotine addiction than her, is barely getting by with her schoolwork, and she thinks she's fat. Did I leave anything out? Oh yeah, she just fell down an old, abandoned well. How could things possibly get worse?
Well, I suppose there is that ghost. You know, the girl whose skeleton Anya nearly fell on at the bottom of the well. And when Anya finally gets help and is pulled out of the well, the ghosts follows her home thanks to one of her finger bones being gathered into Anya's backpack as Anya is rescued.
The relationship between Anya and her ghostly companion take some strange and wonderful turns. Turns out the ghost's name is Emily, and she says she was at the bottom of the well because she was murdered. So in return for helping Anya cheat on her tests, get some key info on her crush, and employ Emily for some other industrious uses, Anya agrees to help solve Emily's murder. From there, the book takes a surprisingly dark turn and Anya finds herself in real trouble the more she tries to figure out who killed Emily and why.
Despite Anya's bristly demeanor, she is an incredibly likeable character who becomes easy to root for, even when she's charging headlong into some obvious poor life choices. If you don't identify with her on some level, I'll bet you went to school with someone who reminds you of Anya. The comedy comes off well-timed, both with the witty quips and the slapstick. It's not all teen angst and snarky dialog though, as the midway point brings in some real tension and suspense. When things really get going towards the end, you don't feel like you're reading a YA comedy, but a full-on horror story.
As for the art style, Vera draws with a homegrown charm. The characters have an appearance reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons, but there's a bit of what I'd call American manga in there too that gives it a feel I believe The Simpsons coined as "edgy-cute." I think a fan of Scott Pilgrim could really appreciate a book like this. As for me, I had a blast reading it, and I think I'm going to need to track down more of Vera's work.