Zoe Thorogood received multiple award nominations for It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth, including 2023 Eisner Awards in the Best Graphic Memoir and Best Writer/Artist categories, Forbes’ “The Best Graphic Novels of 2022” list, and she won the 2023 Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award at the Eisner’s. Her art is evocative, engrossing and layered, grabbing readers immediately.
Zoe herself, however, is an entirely different story. She is certainly layered and complex, but she’s also self-conscious, shy, self-described as pathetic and suicidal. It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth is her attempt to record a six month span of her life and try to make sense of how and why she is mental and emotionally in the place she finds herself. A large portion of the story takes place during the Covid-19 lockdown period of 2021 and the sense of isolation many of us experience then is personified by Zoe, who was lonely long before then.
There is a lot of fourth wall breaking as Zoe directly addresses the reader in this book. Very early on she admits that she’s recently had suicidal thoughts, but she’s had them since she was 14 so it is nothing new for her. She is also quick to admit that this book may be an exercise in narcissism or it might help someone else, but it certainly is a selfish act. She’s hoping to bring us along on her journey to America for her first big comic convention she’s been invited to and her hope is the trip itself might be a journey of self-discovery. During the course of the story we’ll meet 14 year old Zoe back in 2013 and see what it was like for her to try and survive in school, watch Zoe meet her best friend in college and have her heart broken in America.
We see Zoe struggle with personal interactions in public with strangers, fans of her work, her parents and at time her friends. She illustrates her depression as a monster that follows her, a giant looming specter waiting just behind her. She illustrates multiple versions of herself and her personality in varying styles so that we can better see how she transitions in and out of comfort and confidence to stress and fear. I’ll point out here that the art in this book is phenomenal and truly aids every facet of the storytelling. There are times it is told in just black and white, other times with splashes of color and some pages are collage with photocopy and photographic elements. I was completely captivated throughout the book.
It is bold for a 22 year old to write a memoir as there is usually not much life experience to draw from, but this book didn’t suffer from a lack of self-awareness there. Zoe explores themes of isolation, self-worth and perception while pointing out to herself how wildly indulgent and vain it is. While it may not have provided a neat, tidy ending where all ends ‘happily-ever-after’, we did see a lot of personal growth from Zoe even as she simply engages with the idea that her younger self would see her current art as successful and fulfilling. She ends the story in a better place than we found her at the beginning saying, “Loneliness makes it hard to see the bigger picture. It makes you self-obsessed; not out of narcissism but because your own self is all you have. Your flaws, quirks, regrets, and mistakes begin to engulf you. Your own self begins to overshadow that bigger picture, but there is always a bigger picture.”
Image Comics rates this book as Mature and I would agree for the sake of placement inside a library. Suicide is already a tough subject to tackle with younger readers, but Zoe depicts (and comments on) her casual drug use and there is profane language sprinkled throughout. I wouldn’t tell older teens not to pick this up, it’s clear why it was nominated for so many awards, but for them especially I would point out Zoe’s disclaimer inside the cover about talk of suicide and her confrontations with it. I hope for her sake it was as cathartic to write as it is to read. Her frankness and honesty was compelling and I found myself rooting for her.
It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth By Zoe Thorogood Image, 2022 ISBN: 9781534323865
Publisher Age Rating: Mature
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Anxiety, Depression
Just when things were going so well! The Avant-Guards, a quirky basketball team at an equally quirky arts college, have been having a great season; but now stress and interpersonal conflicts are stirring. When Nicole realizes that her passion is not music, but comedy, and wants to change her major; how will her parents react? Will a new player who sets off Charlie’s anxiety derail Charlie’s relationship with Liv? Meanwhile, their newly-formed league has been hit with a funding crisis that could sink it for good. Can the Avant-Guards pull together for a fundraiser to save the league?
This volume concludes the story of the Avant-Guards, taking them from the team’s formation in volume one to the end of their first basketball season. The three volumes—collecting twelve issues of the comic—include character arcs for all the members of the team, though the greatest focus remains on reticent transfer student Charlie and exuberant team captain Liv. Volume One was told entirely from Charlie and Liv’s perspectives, while Volume Two introduced the viewpoints of teammates Jay and Tiffany and their coach, Ash. This volume gives us a Nicole-centered storyline before returning to Charlie and Liv. We also glimpse the perspective of the team’s newest member, who unintentionally throws the team into turmoil just when they need each other most.
As in previous volumes, on-the-court action is interspersed with hanging out, planning, arguing, and other off-court drama for the Avant-Guards. Readers of the first two books will be familiar with these vivid and varied characters, all with their own motivations and hang-ups, adding depth to the interpersonal scenes. Meanwhile, the basketball games—which sometimes include sprawling, dynamic double-page spreads—make for a fun and different way to view the characters. The big fundraiser, too, neatly showcases the talents and interests of each member of the team, reminding us of what they’re all actually going to art school for.
The artwork remains lively, colorful, and expressive. The backgrounds and the characters’ outfits are packed with fun little details, from posters on the walls to the way the different characters dress for the big fundraiser. At the end, the book contains a series of sketches, showing pages in progress, early character designs, and more. It also lists, with illustrations, the other teams in this unusual basketball league, including the Jetts (playing for The Royal Academy of Punk Rock), the Cuddly Retrievers (of The American Institute of Veterinary Curiosities), and the Baristas (hailing from The Academy of Specialty Coffees and Loose Leaf Teas).
Like the first two volumes, Down to the Wire is funny and heartfelt, populated by sympathetic characters who make mistakes but mean well. There are certainly stakes—mostly emotional ones, though the league’s funding is in jeopardy as well—but this is a feel-good book that isn’t here to stress readers out. Given the trajectory of the series overall, it will not surprise readers to hear that things work out in the end.
The Avant-Guards: Down to the Wire By Carly Usdin Art by Noah Hayes ISBN: 9781684155613 Boom! Box, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Traits: African-American, Chinese-American, Bisexual, Lesbian, Nonbinary, Anxiety Creator Highlights: Queer
In a world where the sun is gone and people live with huge artificial lights in the sky, Beatrice (Bea) helps her adoptive grandfather, Alfrid the Pig Wizard, run his potion shop in the forest. The Pig Wizard is old and forgetful, but skillful and kind, and took in Bea when she was a baby. One day, while Bea is off gathering ingredients for potions, her grandfather disappears, leaving behind a note that he needs to check the Seal of the Restless Sleeper. It’s the same day that Bea encounters Cadwallader (Cad), who claims to be a Galdurian: a frog-like group of beings Bea was convinced had been gone for 500 years. Cad needs Alfrid’s help to translate a Galdurian document, so the two team up to search for the Pig Wizard and to figure out what exactly he’s gone off to do.
The Girl & the Galdurian is book one of the Lightfall series, and focuses around Bea and Cad’s journey to find Bea’s grandfather. Along the way, they encounter various dangers and other creatures that inhabit the fantasy world they live in. Bea learns that Cad is searching for his people, the Galdurians, after having fallen asleep in a cave as a child and woken up hundreds of years later to find them gone. Bea also learns that the Jar of Endless Flame, a magic jar entrusted to her by her grandfather, may be more than what it seems. As the first book in the series, The Girl & the Galdurian builds the world and establishes a larger threat that the two heroes will have to contend with in future volumes.
I found this book enjoyable though somewhat predictable. It draws upon a number of tropes and elements of typical fantasy quest stories, but is limited in the unique ideas it offers. The characters seemed a little flat and underdeveloped, though they may be explored further in later books. The comic has the beginnings of interesting world-building, but I’m not sure there was enough in this one volume to really grab me. That said, it’s easy to see how this comic might appeal to middle grade readers who may be less demanding of the writing than adult readers, and may enjoy seeing familiar tropes and concepts. The characters do have charm, and the world of Irpa has potential to become expansive and intriguing with more detail and exploration.
One element that stood out in a positive way was the depiction of Bea’s anxiety. In a number of tense moments, rather than charging forward like a more traditional hero, Bea finds darkness closing in on her. Her heart thumps, she gasps for air, and she is surrounded by negative and accusatory thoughts. Even when not consumed by an episode of panic, Bea tends to be wary, nervous, and uncertain. Though it’s never explicitly stated in the text, it seems fair to assume that Bea has an anxiety disorder of some sort. Despite these challenges, she perseveres and remains strong through the many fear-inducing encounters on her quest. It’s rare to see mental illness portrayed so straightforwardly and without judgement in fantasy, and there will certainly be readers who appreciate and relate to this aspect of the comic.
The art of the book is both cute and lively, and stood out to me personally more than the story. The level of detail in clothing and settings contributes to the development of the world, including many expansive Tolkien-esque landscapes. The colors are excellent and well suited to creating the mood. Overall, Probert does a fantastic job with creating appealing and interesting visuals to carry the reader along Bea and Cad’s journey.
The publisher suggests Lightfall for fans of stories like Star Wars and Amulet. I was also reminded in some ways of the 5 Worlds series. Though it’s not the most original, the comic has good things to offer, and will likely be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like epic fantasies, quests, and adventures in new and interesting worlds.
Lightfall: The Girl & the Galdurian 1 By Tim Probert ISBN: 9780062990471 Harper Alley, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Character Traits: Anxiety
At the start of Woman World, a genetic defect wipes out all male humans within a few generations. Then a series of natural disasters devastates the planet. From the ashes rises a new civilization: one made up only of women.
Then: wacky hijinks!
Despite its grim beginnings, this is a silly, sometimes sweet look at a post-apocalyptic—and post-man—world. Here, a village bands together under a flag bearing an image of Beyoncé’s thighs. (As we later discover, the neighboring villages also chose parts of Beyoncé’s body as their standards.) Within that village live women of a variety of ages, races, and body types. There’s the grandmother who is the only one who can remember real live men, and her granddaughter who scavenges through the ruins for pieces of the old world. (Her most prized discovery: a DVD of Paul Blart: Mall Cop.) There are single women and women in relationships, women writing poetry and women who have decided to be naked all the time. Together, they live a cooperative, generally peaceful existence.
In Woman World, men are remembered with a fond wistfulness, a lost part of human culture. But women don’t spend too much time missing or wondering about them: they’re busy living their lives. (That said, a lot of the jokes do involve people making incorrect assumptions about what the old world was like.)
The stakes are generally low in this slice-of-life comic. Conflicts arise from arguments, anxiety, and the occasional unrequited love. There is also concern about the future of the human race: surviving sperm banks are an option for women who want to have children, but they won’t last forever, and other methods are still experimental. But in the meantime, everyday concerns revolve mostly around relationships, romantic or platonic.
The book Woman World is a print collection of the popular Instagram webcomic of the same name. The art is grayscale, with a few full-color pages sprinkled through the book. There are usually three to five panels per page. Some pages can stand alone as one-off jokes, while others are part of continuing plot arcs. The characters’ faces are simple but expressive, while their distinctive body shapes, hairstyles, and outfits make them easy to tell apart. Shading indicates different skin and hair colors. One character has a prosthetic leg, and one has surgical scars; some have piercings or wrinkles or other visible differences that make them easy to distinguish while also making the world of the comic richer and more interesting.
As far as content, there is no violence and no on-page sex, just some kissing. There is frequent nudity, but it is never sexualized, and no genitals are drawn in, just triangles that are understood to be pubic hair. A small number of swear words appear, generally as part of a joke.
Woman World may portray a post-apocalyptic civilization roughing it in the wilderness among the ruins of our world, but it’s actually a rather relaxing read. The characters usually mean well, and no one gets hurt. Just women of all kinds supporting each other and going about their business, with some jokes thrown in. Hand it to anyone looking for a gently funny stand-alone read.
Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal ISBN: 9781770463356 Drawn & Quarterly, 2018