Sharks, especially potential man-eaters like the great white, hold endless fascination for the public. Evidence of this can be found in the enduring popularity of Discovery’s Shark Week. Matt Dembicki capitalizes on that appeal with his graphic novel, Xoc: The Journey of a Great White. Xoc (pronounced “shock”), the author informs the reader, “is an ancient Mayan word for demon fish…the likely origin of the English word shark.” Xoc is the name Dembicki gives the star of his work, a mature female great white who is journeying from the cold waters and rich feeding grounds of San Francisco’s Farallon Islands across the Pacific to the warmer waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. It is Xoc’s journey that the story and the reader follow, watching her encounters with predators, prey, and human dangers as her instincts propel her west to give birth to her pup in her own natal waters.
Dembicki’s work is beautiful, capturing the elusive beauty of the ocean in its use of color and image. Lettering styles are well chosen to complement visual panels, and each design element works to keep the eye focused on the unceasing movements of both Xoc and the ocean currents she travels. Cover, frontispiece, and title pages are deep, rich blues reminiscent of the ocean depths, with shadow outlines of sea creatures lurking in hidden places. The ocean blue flows through the novel, lightening and darkening as Xoc swims closer to the surface or dives deeper, before brightening to more vivid blues with bright colored fish as she enters the tropical waters. Sea creatures, including Xoc, are captured in artistic detail, not photorealistic, yet natural and real. Dembicki does not flinch from the realities of the life of an apex predator. Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw as Xoc and other sea creatures feed; the violence is not graphic or gratuitous, but it is clearly captured in bloodstained water and torn carcasses.
Equally unflinchingly drawn are the realities of ocean pollution and human actions; the ugly realities of shark finning and garbage islands are seen in a loggerhead turtle trapped in a plastic soda ring and hooks baited with bleeding fish bodies. Although Dembicki is a passionate environmental advocate, his work avoids diatribes or obvious proselytizing. Not all the humans Xoc encounters are destructive or dangerous; explorers in a shark cage and scientific tagging are seen as non-threats to the great shark and her migration. The reader’s focus is kept on the wonders of undersea life, narrated through the journey of Xoc and the loggerhead turtle who swims in her wake. The rich diversity and fascinating creatures that most of us will never see lurking in the hidden currents below the ocean waves comes to life as they cross the sea. Orcas, dolphins, whales, and a giant squid are merely a few of the many creatures seen as the great fish swims, threatening and being threatened in equal turn.
Oni Press has labeled Xoc as appropriate for all ages and the story has much educational potential for young readers. However, some younger or sensitive readers may be disturbed by the blood and violence of the great white’s life and the story’s fade-to-black ending. Other readers may be challenged by Dembicki’s scientific vocabulary; phocid and pinniped, for example, are not commonly found on vocabulary lists and may require the reader to seek out a dictionary, encyclopedia, or Google. Included for the curious reader are a bibliography and a list of recommended websites for further exploration on the topics of white sharks and ocean life. Educational, intriguing, and beautiful, Matt Dembicki’s Xoc: The Journey of a Great White is a great graphic novel for budding scientists and curious minds of all ages.