May 25, 2014

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Undertaking of Lily Chen

Written and Illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff
Published by First Second

When Deshi Li's brother dies suddenly--and as a bachelor, his deeply religious parents send him on a quest to find a bride for the brother to share in the afterlife. But it won't be easy, as the dying tradition sends him down into the darker parts of Chinese culture and into the arms of a young woman who can change everything for Deshi in this ambitious graphic novel whose strong visuals make up for a few weak moments in the plot.

Opening with a struggle between Deshi and his brother which leads to the brother's death, Deshi is guilted into finding a ghost bride for the brother. That leads him into trouble, as it is completely illegal, forcing him to grow more and more desperate. When a corpse snatch and grab goes wrong, Deshi meets Lily, who chafes at the idea of another old and dying tradition--marrying off a daughter to solve a financial problem.

Together, they run slowly back to Deshi's fate, where he must decide whether or not he can further ruin his life to make his dead brother "happy" in the afterlife. Meanwhile, Lily, who sees him as her savior, slowly learns the truth, forcing Deshi to make his choice.Things do bog down a little bit at this point, as we see many interruptions on the road back, cuts to other characters, and a few moments that are included just for the joy of drawing the visuals. That's for a purpose, though, because each of these vignettes takes us a little closer to showing just how screwed Deshi is, caught between duty and desire, and beliefs he is expected to share and respect. This is also true of Lily to a lesser extent, but she does not have a conflict--Lily rejects the ideas of her parents outright.

All of those moments explode when the grave robber runs into Deshi and Lily, followed quickly be her father. Novgorodoff's intricate plotting brings us to the moment of truth for both of them, and their decisions will change their lives entirely. The denouncements show you can't run from your past forever, a powerful theme that, unfortunately, does get undercut by Novgorodoff by resolving things a bit too neatly and resorting to an urban legend that's been proven not to work. There's certainly enough light fantasy going on in the narrative to justify it, but given Lily's no-nonsense attitude, I felt like an ending grounded in her practicality would have fit in better.

The story is certainly good enough to hold its own, despite a few pacing issues and the choice of ending, but the main reason to read Undertaking is the art. It's very difficult to create a comic with watercolors, but those who do it well (like Eddie Campbell) quickly become some of my favorite creators, because I am a big fan of how watercolors look, either in a book or hanging in an art gallery. Novgorodoff pulls off some illustrations that are simply divine, making the reader linger over their construction. Her use of watercolor effects (like smeared paint) is extremely innovative, too. I don't think I've even seen Campbell try purposeful smudging, though admittedly I've not read his entire catalog.

While others might have tried to ink creations such as the ghosts that supposedly haunt Deshi, Novgorodoff uses her brush to delineate them, giving them an especially ephemeral quality. It also allows her to create backgrounds where the colors blend more naturally, like in real life No matter how good a computer colorist is--and there are plenty of them--you can't recreate two different shades of wet paint meeting together on paper, and mixing with its impurities. That's something unique to working with watercolors, at least in my opinion, and Novgorodoff is a master at her craft here.

Adding to the art is Novgorodoff's linework, which is very thin and fluid, reminding me quite a bit of Lewis Trondheim. While characters have a consistency that makes them easy to identify, such as the Conehead-style head of the grave robber or the square nature of Lily's father, their structure and anatomy is loose enough to allow her to exaggerate or shrink proportions as needed. Deshi's legs can grow longer if he needs to walk away fast. Lily's dress is almost a living thing in terms of its expressionism. And let's not get started on the poor legs of Lily's father, who have to hold up his vast chest that's as big as a small car.

The detail work is also incredibly strong, which is where many independent creators break down. Lily's house has tons of miscellaneous bottles and containers, an old pipe, and a crack in the wall. In another example, there's trash under a stairwell, and you can count the individual items. Novgorodoff works hard to make sure we are completely enmeshed in this world where Old and New China meet, a universe where folks still walk small village paths and yet also fly aircraft. We need the small touches to know what type of place Deshi and Lily come from--a complex culture that wants modernity but also small religious temples.

Undertaking of Lily Chen isn't a perfect book by any means, but it deserves credit for being an extremely ambitious concept that works in nearly every detail. With two main characters you'll immediately fall in love with, problems of familial expectations that are easy to relate to, and some of the best watercolor work I've see in a comic, it's easy to forgive the shortfalls. This is just the kind of book First Second is good at publishing, and it's well worth your time to pick up.