Illustrated by Matt Dembicki
Xoc is a great white shark with a mission as old as her genetic code and a journey longer than most humans will ever make. Travel with Xoc as she moves across the ocean and faces dangers both natural and man-made, with her only companion a sea turtle with similar goals. Matt Dembicki gives us a nature documentary in comics form with the well-illustrated and meticulously researched Xoc.
Long long time Panel Patter readers will know that I have been a fan of Matt Dembicki for several years, and Xoc, which started as a series of mini-comics before being picked up near the finale by Oni Press, was a big part of the reason. Dembicki has a natural affinity for drawing animals in ways that give them personalities while never turning them into anthropomorphic versions. Xoc and the sea turtle converse, as do the seals that open the book with a scene and decision that echo the closing of the narrative, but they speak only of natural things or how man-made items might appear to their own eyes and senses.
That does not mean Xoc is free from commentary. Dembicki is clearly an environmentalist, and unapologetic about it. The narrative that accompanies the shark and the turtle, which soothing like a PBS documentary, sticks mostly to the facts but the visuals that accompany any interactions between humans and animals say far more than any moralizing could do. This is especially true in cases of waste, such as the floating garbage heaps (which Dembicki notes in the afterward is as large as Texas) or in places where sharks have been harvested for their fins only, leaving the rest to rot. (Aside: Why do we look on horror when this is done to a rhino, but it's okay for sharks? I don't get that.) Dembicki's clear illustrations damn the human race for their pollution and disregard, and he does it without the endless moralizing that could easily have been included. Instead, the shark comments only on the poison and danger, and we move on to another adventure under the water.
When I first read the minis that Xoc is built from, I remember being impressed with the ability of Dembicki to move the narrative and give us a biology lesson without any of it feeling contrived. Because the premise is that Xoc must move to spawn, we are able to see the entire ocean laid out in the comic, giving him plenty of room to educate and illustrate. Dembicki's extensive research gets put to good use while his placement of the characters and animal designs make the reader feel like they are receiving a full education and being entertained at the same time, which is no easy task. Xoc is both factual and a pleasure to read--exactly the type of graphic novel that can--and should--be placed in school libraries.
Matching with the timeless nature of the ocean and its denizens, several of whom we meet in Xoc, the story moves along at a very leisurely pace. There is an inevitability about the story, like the nature of the tides themselves, but it is not a barn-burning plot. The narrative boxes and dialogue are minimal, letting the reader linger on everything from blood in the water to schools of fish. There is drama, especially when the intelligent killer whales team up to try and take out the shark, but this is not a fast-paced read. It's designed and illustrated to be read carefully, soaking in the various shades of blue or the way that Dembicki sketches small lines to indicate movement.
Like all stories, this one must end, and I think Dembicki's decisions in how to close the book relate back to his environmental politics, though they definitely fit within the nature of the story and are not forced. The afterward discusses some of the issues shown in Xoc, and provides an exhaustive set of literature for those who are interested in delving further (if you'll pardon the pun) into the nature of contemporary ocean biology. Regardless of your opinions, the facts that Dembicki discusses at the end of the book are staggering and convincing. It also provides a springboard for teachers, if they opt to use this book as a resource.
I've waited a long time for the ending of Xoc, but it was well worth it. This book is perfect for anyone in your life who loves nature and nature documentaries and is age-appropriate for anyone considering adding this to their educational library. I enjoyed Xoc immensely, and I think you will, too.