by Danica Novgorodoff
First Second Books
Danica Novgorodoff won the Isotope award for her mini-comic A Late Freeze and is currently the designer for First Second. Which of course rather sets the alarm bells ringing. Is this a sympathy book, published by the people she does design work for? But within the first few pages you realise it’s no such thing and Novgorodoff proves herself a writer and artist who’s published on her merits alone. Unfortunately all that early promise of something great rather wastes away by the end, but we’ll get to that in a moment….
It’s a quiet, emotional slow storm of a story. Things develop slowly and Novgorodoff takes her time, stretching out scenes, using silent panels and silent pages to great effect to really emphasise the emotions at work and the violent background that nature provides through it all. It’s an intense and poetic tale of two people, both struggling to deal with their places in the world, who find a strong emotional connection amidst the chaos of nature in the raw. What Novgorodoff does beautifully, breathtakingly well is paint a picture of the scale of the Midwest in a manner that only further constrains and traps the characters in their small lives. She paints some incredible watercolour vistas of the landscape, pages that near take your breath away in their vast, natural beauty. The Big Sky indeed. In fact, this is really a book more for the art and a sense of mood and emotion than the actual story.
(The Big Sky. From Danica Novgorodoff’s Slow Storm. Published First Second)
It’s tornado season and Kentucky Derby time in Oldham County. The beauty and power of both will feature throughout Slow Storm. The countryside is devastated by flash fires and lightning strikes. And in the midst of all this chaos we meet fire-fighter Ursa Crain and Rafi; a Mexican illegal immigrant working for his bed in the barn above the horses he looks after. Against a gathering storm and oncoming tornadoes, the two are drawn together through alienation, circumstance and strong emotional need. Ursa is a female firefighter struggling to cope with her life, obviously desperately unhappy and bursting with anger towards her fellow workers. Rafi is just struggling to get by in this foreign country, missing the familiarity of his native Mexico and a family he desperately misses. In the first third of the book the two character’s stories circle each other, as Ursa prepares for a shift, with the weather reports of lightning strikes, flash fires and the oncoming storm providing eerie foreshadowing. Rafi meanwhile is experiencing the intensity of the storm first-hand, as a lightening strike starts a devastating fire in his barn. It’s Rafi’s brave attempt to rescue the horses that is destined to bring the two together.
As Ursa and her crew fight the barn fire all her suppressed anger explodes and she locks her brother inside the blazing barn. It’s a bizarre event, sudden and shockingly against character and just doesn’t work in the context of the story. I understand that she’s angry, I understand that she’s pissed at her brother and his constant belittling of her. But I just couldn’t see why she took it so far. And that’s really when I first began to have my doubts about the book.
After this event, Ursa rescues a miraculously unharmed Rafi and takes him in. Two confused, lost and lonely people get together and the beginnings of a relationship is forged. But Ursa’s brother has pinned the blame on the Mexican for locking him in the barn and the police are on the lookout for Ursa and Rafi.
Despite all of the beautiful artwork and a story that starts so very well, by halfway it rather loses it’s way and by the end I felt disappointed, when Novgorodoff more pulls up sharply than actually attempts anything approximating a conclusion. I get that the story is more emotional and poetic than a work of straight fiction, but the ending needed something more than just the dead stop she’s given us.
(Interesting use of double images in single panels to depict sudden, intense action. From Slow Storm by Danica Novgorodoff. Published First second)
If only Novgorodoff could have maintained the emotional intensity and the slow, threatening build-up she put on those first 50 pages. She’s so in control of the reader at this point, her lush watercolours in total synergy with the intense and poetic language she uses to flesh out her characters. A book that maintained that level of quality woul dmake all manner of best of lists. But the early promise falters and fails and although Slow Storm is incredibly beautiful it just lacks the narrative structure to take it to the level of a great book. At times Novgorodoff throws in little visual flourishes that just work so well; the radio static represented by word balloons of visual noise, the depiction of sudden movement by double images of characters within the same panel, but overall, these just deflect momentarily from a disappointment with a story that had the potential to be much, much more. Sometimes being beautiful just isn’t enough.
Danica Novgorodoff’s website.
First Second’s website.