By Katie Green
To be honest this review is long overdue, I’ve already pinned my colours to the mast by making this one of my top 10 books of 2013, but never found time to review it until now. But rather than simply leaving it as too late, this is one that I felt I had to review, as it’s quite simply one of the greatest, certainly the most impressive and fully-formed, début comic works I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Yes, début comics work. That’s just one of the incredible things about Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow. 500+ pages thick and full of import, yet only her first graphic novel. Incredible really.
Sure, Green’s zine ‘The Green Bean‘ is well established, but to go from a 20/30-page irregularly published zine (albeit a very good, very entertaining 20/30-page irregularly published zine) to 500+ pages of graphic novel brilliance is some step-up.
Lighter Than My Shadow is Katie Green’s autobiographical memoir of struggle and recovery, first with anorexia, then binge-eating, with an added complication of a constant desire to achieve an impossible level of control, and everything compounded when she has to cope with the hideous sexual abuse that very nearly destroyed her.
It’s heartbreakingly sad at times, desperately honest and truthful at others, and absolutely uplifting in the end.
It is a wonderfully, wonderfully moving graphic novel.
I finally made time for the book again after Christmas, headed to the pub, settled down in the warm, and read.
Stopping only to replenish the coffee, I was completely absorbed, totally unaware of everything going on around me. The pub could have been on fire and I’d have struggled to notice.
It may be a long work, and the subject matter may be harrowing and desperately traumatic, but the actual reading of Lighter Than My Shadow is flawless and oh so easy. Green’s very relaxed, very open, almost conversational storytelling style makes the pages fly past. It’s a very simply told story told exceptionally well, adopting a straightforward, very linear style where Green simply recounts her life, from beginning to now, occasionally interjecting to comment from the present day. Entirely the right decision as well, when the story and the storytelling are so engrossing and involving, there’s simply no need to be showy.
And whilst on non-showy, Green’s artwork is simple and clean and very easy on the eye, even though what she’s showing us may be quite disturbing, the style of it is open and welcoming, Green choosing a monochrome character set against simple page background colours, each chapter coloured to reflect the emotional tone of the moment, a subtle yet so effective way of doing things. On top of this each page has a fascinating page design where each panel border is actually a specially added digital effect, mimicking a physical paper crease, adding a touch of the handmade, the zine, to such a professional book.
As for the story, you may already know all you need, and there’s very little you need to know beyond the basic blurb; Katie Green’s early life is plagued by picky eating, a vivid imagination, and the terrible, over-riding need to establish control in all things.
The picky eating leads to eating disorder, the control issues lead to obsessive compulsive disorder, the spiral goes only one-way, and that’s down to a particularly painful and potentially deadly combination. As a teen and adult it’s treated, somewhat controlled, but the problem never really goes away, always there to take over Katie’s life. Sadly at this point, Katie is so lost in her illness that any help can feel miraculous and she’s all too vulnerable to those so weak that they take advantage and abuse those suffering.
As I said, this is no easy emotional ride, it’s one that will upset you, will make you angry, so very angry, and eventually as struggle leads to long, long recovery, will fill you with joy.
Throughout Lighter Than My Shadow, Green is very careful to dissociate herself form Katie the character. It’s part self-preservation, part sensible storytelling technique. Green is the authorial voice, the figure in bunny slippers we occasionally see in the recent past, drawing her graphic novel, in a better place, whereas Katie is the character in the graphic novel, the one who suffers all this, has to struggle through.
And throughout Lighter Than My Shadow, Green the artist illustrates Katie’s struggles with a simple visual metaphor, whether it’s food issues, control issues, depression, suicidal thoughts, it’s all drawn as a swirling black cloud of lines, forever circling, sometimes small and easily cast aside, at other times so black and dominating and destructive it’s impossible to see a way through. Simple. Effective. Powerful.
It’s genuinely horrific watching this delightful, imaginative child succumb to a cycle of self-abuse, Green capturing it in seeming slow motion, obsessional behaviour, a need for control, to ritualise, to order, everything symmetrical, everything counted, and when that need for control is applied to her body and her existing poor relationship with food, the resulting battle with eating disorders is as painful as it is inevitable.
The black cloud grows ever larger, surrounding her, consuming her, vicious thoughts of self-harm fill her mind, she wants to cut out the fat, a single chocolate catches in her throat and we see the blackness spread, deep into her stomach, and watch helpless as she tries to rip out the offending darkness. The imagery is horrible, shocking, violent, but even though she tries she can’t purge that way, just can’t make herself throw up, so it’s out on the streets, walking it off, counting every single step, control, control, control, control.
With therapy failing, the family try an alternative, someone who gives a vulnerable teen confidence and independence, allowing Katie to build a façade of recovery strong enough to fool everyone, but built on a terrible, repulsive lie, a secret of abuse, of a trusted individual preying on someone weaker, more vulnerable.
Katie, false recovery failing for reasons she can’t, she wont face, finds solace in food once more, the anorexic now a binge eater, her control spiralling out of control, the binging hideous to watch, horrible to experience, her shame and revulsion so painful.
The abuse and Katie’s refusal to deal with any of it, her control issues, her mental state so fragile, the binge-eating, everything builds, and inevitably poor Katie breaks down, the truth comes tumbling out, she sleepwalks through realisation, her recovery based on a lie, she breaks, her personality unravelling, all hope gone….
“I’m right back where I started.”
“I can’t cope with this any more”
“I’ll never recover from this.”
“I wish I was dead.”
At this point Green opens Katie to her readers, total honesty, a blank page, metaphorically and literally, as Green delivers the single most powerful moment of the book, having built everything to an emotional crescendo she rips it all away, tablula rasa.
This is Katie’s moment, she falls into this white, foetal curled, wakes, picks up a pencil, and draws.
As Green says in the book, the single moment of this turning point is a fabrication, or at least she imagines it is. There’s much of that time she doesn’t remember, but presented here, through Katie, we get the message, beautifully, loud, clear.
“I want to live.”
“I want to draw.“
That was it for me, there had been tears before this, but at this point tears became weeping, the moment so powerful, so uplifting, so wonderful that even simply writing about it now sends shivers down my spine.
The hundred pages that follow this point are honest and true, remembrances of how the breakthrough was nothing of the sort, of how difficult recovery truly is, of how trauma still hurts so much to this day, of how difficult Katie and Green found the whole process of getting better and fighting against the dark lines that regularly came back.
But in the end, Lighter Than My Shadow is a tale of struggle AND recovery, and Katie’s recovery is dealt with as honestly and painfully as her struggle.
When I finished Lighter Than My Shadow I had a realisation. How often can you hold something in your hands and quite honestly say “this work of art saved someone’s life”?
With Lighter Than My Shadow you genuinely have that. Art and strength saved Katie’s life, allowed Green to tell us al about her. It’s a truly remarkable work, a memoir so powerful and affecting, a study of absolute desperation and a shining light of hope to any who suffer from similar.
Powerful, heartbreaking, uplifting, educational, horrific, beautiful, all of those things beyond measure.