Once upon a time, perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, the world of graphic novels was a much smaller one, with fewer artists getting published, and thus fewer themes being explored and fewer artistic styles being used. Happily, as readers responded positively to ever more diverse fare, the graphic novel scene has blown up in exciting and even unpredictable ways. Today it seems there is a comic about everything from Palestine to the Philippines, from primates to the Manhattan Project, and every interpersonal relationship imaginable. Can a straightforward coming-of-age tale even be worth a second look in this eclectic publishing climate? Shoplifter,by Michael Cho, begs the question.
The answer is yes and no. Shoplifter is expertly and subtly drawn, well-paced, and a sort of short film that has a clear beginning, middle, and end that’s boldly printed in pinks and blacks. But beyond that, it’s unremarkable. It’s the story of Corinna, a young woman who studied English literature in college and now works, unhappily, for an advertising agency. She lives alone, she shoplifts from the corner store for the thrill of doing something out of the ordinary, she longs for romantic and personal fulfillment, and she feels stuck. Will she get herself out of this rut, or will the hand of fate step in to help her? Perhaps a bit of both. It’s a well-told tale, but it’s not particularly original, nor does it strive to offer personal or profound insight into the malaise of young adulthood. There are plenty of stories out there of young people struggling to find life’s meaning—some successful, some misguided, some absurd, and some tragic. Some even seem prepared and packaged for a particular market segment.
Shoplifter is almost representative of this, but Cho’s artistic prowess is just enough to elevate it. Corinna’s emotional turmoil is clear from the little ways her lips and eyebrows tilt from panel to panel, and the shifting angles of her neck and her shoulders speak volumes. Cho clearly has a fantastic command of crafting characters through visual cues. But the story itself is too tidy, takes no chances, and does little to differentiate itself from what is becoming an increasingly popular genre.
This particular story is not my cup of tea by a long shot, but it’s eminently readable, an accessible introduction to the coming-of-age graphic novel, and a promising debut for Cho. With his artistic skill, he could afford to take a few risks and challenge the reader narratively, and with that, he’d have a real hit on his hands.
by Michael Cho