“Which is better—the sweet lie, or the bitter truth?”
Elysia Puente grapples with these options as she explores the New York City subway system during a Category 3 hurricane. She’s looking for her little brother, Angel, who called her in a moment of desperation. Even though they are both adult age, she sees herself as his protector and braves a series of supernatural challenges in search of her brother as well as the truth between them. Her complete story envelopes not only her and her brother, but an entire family history’s worth of deceit.
Submerged is a taut, imaginative look at family trauma through a series of lenses. Over the course of its four chapters, Elysia’s journey sees her gradually coming to terms with the impact her parents had on her and her brother. For example, at one point, Elysia runs past a couple of posters on the subway station wall: one saying ‘Don’t give up on yourself—Seek help,’ the other, ‘Judy’s Pies—Just like mom’s!’ This background detail foreshadows the spectre of Elysia’s mother, a real piece of work. She always pushed a rigid standard of living on Elysia’s life to the point of abuse, followed by forcefully apologizing to the point of a different but equally harmful abuse. She hugs Elysia too tight when she’s a child and forces her to switch schools so that she can’t see her girlfriend. She argues with teenage Elysia to not go to college. The mother’s reasons are always presented as for the father’s sake, but she is still enforcing that dominance on her daughter.
The story is straightforward enough on its own, with Elysia witnessing flashbacks to her childhood that gradually build an overarching narrative with a couple of concluding twists. However, readers who engage with the mythological name-dropping and symbolism will have plenty to digest. True to Greek myth, Phlegethon Station is all fire and smoke, just like its Greek underworld namesake, the river of fire. News reports about the hurricane above reference areas of New York City being submerged in “the river,” begging comparisons to the River Styx and the passage of the dead to the afterlife. Elysia even uses tokens to get in and out of the subway system, and the train conductor is blind like Charon, the ferryman of myth. Parallels to Odysseus’s and Orpheus’s classic journeys abound for readers to recognize.
Elysia is an entertaining character to follow. As she witnesses memories of dramatic arguments with her family, she makes self-aware comments such as, ‘If I live through this I’m never having kids, I swear to god’ and ‘My therapist is going to have a field day with this.’ She and her family are bilingual, and the parents consider Elysia’s consistent use of English a sign of disrespect. Elysia’s preference for girls is treated more severely, almost like a betrayal. Elysia uses the word ‘dyke’ to describe how she thinks others see her, and graffiti in the station uses that word as well, reflecting the pain she is revisiting.
A number of lettering effects are employed throughout the story. Dotted word balloons are used to show whispering. Gray lettering conveys an echo. Spiky balloons broadcast phone messages. Big, bold, yellow letters are used for sound effects. A variety of coloring and layout effects are also used. For example, in a scene of tracks changing direction, the page layout turns sideways, though it presents no additional difficulties in reading the content. As the storm worsens near the end of the book, the gutters themselves become watery blue lines of water running along the page. While the station is often bathed in shadows and populated with colorful ghosts, the train cars that display Elysia’s flashbacks each use different palettes, including black outlines switching to light browns.
The story also addresses gender roles from Elysia and Angel’s points of view. Angel fights Elysia over a dinosaur toy in childhood, saying it’s for boys, then apologizes. Elysia always bears the nickname La Princesa from her father, a term of affection but also control. Their father’s criminal empire places uniquely violent burdens on Angel’s shoulders. As a young man, Angel wants to prove himself to his father and freaks out the first time Angel impulsively uses a gun to kill someone—he says it was an accident. Later on, when he is assigned a hit, he refuses to pull the trigger and says about it, ‘It felt good, okay? I felt like a goddamn man, for once in my life.’ Later on, Elysia reflects, ‘If I don’t let go of the anger and resentment about the past, I’ll never leave it behind.’ Escape from the supernatural subway is an exercise in reflection, confession, and ultimately forgiveness.
Submerged is an excellent graphic novel that fits in a number of categories, such as queer, Spanish-language, horror, magical realism, and crime. The horror/violent content is fairly mild, with some tears of blood here and stabbing a giant caterpillar with a sword there. Other mature content, such as alcohol consumption, multiple four-letter words, and the aforementioned homophobic slur, place this squarely in older teen and adult territory.
By Vita Ayala
Art by Lisa Sterle
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Afro Latina Lesbian
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator