Monday, January 6, 2014

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

Circumnavigating Early Earth, a storyteller from the land of Nord meets his soul mate, a woman from the South Pole. Immediately, the two fall in love.  Basically sounds like your bog-standard love story, doesn’t it? Well, think again, since there is nothing ordinary about this love story at all: Little does the Nord man know that his travels have affected the magnetic field of Early Earth so that the two experience a magnetic repulsion - though being in love, Nord man and South Pole woman can never touch. 

So begins Isabel Greenberg's beautiful and highly imaginative Encyclopedia of Early Earth, a collection of tales about “Gods, monsters, mad kings, wise old crones, shamans, medicine men, brothers and sisters, strife, mystery, bad science, worse geography and […] true love” - tales that are at the same time familiar and strange. And Greenberg does not only pick up familiar literary motifs like “true love” or “mad kings”, but also well-known elements from legend, human history and religion and puts a twist on them. Thus, the Nord man meets a Cyclops on his travels and can escape him when some bird droppings fall into the Cyclops’ eye. Later on, he is swallowed by a whale who turns out to be “Kid”, the son of Early Earth’s supreme deity “BirdMan”. His daughter “Kiddo”, on the other hand, falls in love with a human. When “BirdMan” finds out, he is “beside himself, livid. Quite frankly he [is] hopping mad”, we are told, and accordingly wants to destroy the world with a flood. It is this familiarity which draws the reader into the book, but the changes Greenberg applies are what keeps him interested.
"true love"...
Greenberg connects her tales from a fictional ancient and forgotten age in world history by framing them with the story of the Nord man, who is a young storyteller searching for a missing part of his soul. His profession is no coincidence, since at its heart the whole graphic novel is about storytelling and the power of stories.
... and "mad kings"
And like her hero, Greenberg herself is a master storyteller. She is able to create a whole world here, including different cultures (each with their individual histories), a religion and geography. The book even includes and appendix, in which Greenberg shows us amongst other things the hunting and fishing gear of the Nords, explains the 1001 varieties of snow and depicts different “birds & beasts” from Early Earth.
map of a region on Early Earth

from the appendix
One aspect I really enjoyed is that while the framing narrative is linear, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth at times unfolds like Russian matryoshka doll - there are stories within stories within stories and you never know what to expect next. All this adds up to a magical graphic novel that literally makes you lose track of time and place and fills one with a sense of wonder which makes you feel like a child again.

This effect is underlined by the simplistic and stylised artwork which creates the feeling of reading a children's book. And even though it at times looks woodcut-like, it is still extremely expressive and playful.

Fascinating is also that although parts like the love story between Nord man and South Pole woman should be heartbreaking they actually are not, because Greenberg always manages to give her tales an underlying positive tone and light-heartedness. In fact, while reading the Encyclopedia I often found myself laughing out loud. This often happened because of the contrasts in the language used. While we mostly find dramatic language like “We swore vengeance on the savages who dwell there” or “It still lies, stagnant and dark, outside the city, a reminder of the power of the Gods”, this is often juxtaposed by modern-day colloquialisms such as “Pipe down, naysayer” or “Kiddo has been shacking up with a human”.
"BirdMan" and his children, "Kid" and "Kiddo"
But because of the aforementioned sense of wonder I had when reading The Encyclopedia of Early Earth it kind of feels wrong to analyse the book too much and I think that being analytical is the exact opposite of what Greenberg tried to achieve here. Instead, you should just read this fascinating piece of graphic narration and let it carry you away.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is published by Jonathan Cape in the UK (£16.99/ISBN-13: 978-0224097192) and Little, Brown and Compnay in the US ($23.00/ISBN-13: 978-0316225816)

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