30-year-old poet Amelia, entering the final three weeks of her life, has enlisted her best friends Henry, an Oscar award-winning filmmaker in Los Angeles, and Jillian, a celebrated writer in New York, to travel across the country and deliver personal messages to her friends and family. Both Henry and Jillian are in creative and romantic ruts until Amelia brings them together to lend their talents to her final request, which may involve more than they bargained for.
There is a lot to like in this self-contained graphic novel: a tightly plotted, accessible story that focuses on the relationships between friends, family and lovers, a celebration of life and a happy ending in the midst of tragedy. At the same time, the story is so carefully structured that it often feels contrived, making it difficult to become engaged as a reader.
There is no question of where the story will end up once it gets going, which had a distancing effect for me. Throughout the book, characters remark “it’s nice to think we can make our own happy endings,” and “there’s always a plan, even when we can’t see it.” The story serves to illustrate both of these statements, as Amelia’s request leads to the project that brings Henry and Jillian together and resolves all of their creative and romantic problems. This, of course, has been Amelia’s plan all along, a plan that could only really work in a completely fictional setting where characters are literally created to be together.
While the plot reveals an increasingly complex portrait of Amelia’s life, each new revelation is better understood as a new development in Henry and Jillian’s relationship. Each interview provides new fodder for them to display and confront their own weaknesses, ultimately coming together as partners. It is tastefully and sensitively handled, but I still found it discomfiting to think that a character’s death was plotted in order to cement the romance between two other characters. This may be a matter of personal preference, however, and other readers may be the most personally affected by the same elements that left me cold.
The black and white artwork is nicely rendered, with a simple but expressive manga-inspired style that makes good use of solid blacks and clearly outlined figures. It is easy to follow without getting bogged down in details, while still allowing for the occasional humorous touch in the background, such as Henry’s assistants gazing at a nude portrait on a gallery wall, or the barroom brawl that erupts between a group of performance poets and academics.
While writing and artwork are solid and enjoyable, the story would have benefited by striking a better balance between the two. Characters are constantly explaining things that could have been handled visually, giving the dialogue more breathing room. We know that Henry is supposed to be brilliant with visuals and Jillian is supposed to be brilliant with words, but only because characters are constantly telling us this. We see almost nothing of their creative work itself, which is a missed opportunity in a medium that combines visuals and words. There are many moments where I wanted to see what characters were going through without being told, especially when it came to their passions and regrets.
It feels unfair to be so critical of a work that has such a positive outlook on people and life; perhaps my impossibly high standards are a reaction to this graphic novel’s lofty, noble ambitions. It does so many things that I like, such as focus on characters and their relationships, that I want even more from it than I normally would. If you also value character-driven human dramas, An Elegy for Amelia Johnson is well worth the read.