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
High school is a time of transition. A time for coming of age. Relationships change. Both family and friends. Some end, others evolve, and new ones emerge. You begin to see yourself in a new light. It’s a time when many are suspended in limbo. For Deb JJ Lee, a Korean-American author and illustrator, their high school years were a time of tumultuous self-discovery. In Limbo is Lee’s graphic memoir chronicling the choppy waters of adolescent relationships and sense of self.
Lee struggles to find their place at home and at school. After emigrating from South Korea as a young child, they struggle with their identity and being other, not really Korean but not really American.
The memoir navigates relationships and emotion with great care and depth. After years of playing the violin, Lee comes to the realization that their passion is art, not music. The transition is difficult. Friends are in the orchestra and their parents invested so much time and money in lessons. This limbo between music and art is the theme throughout their freshman and sophomore year. And, as with the other themes of transition throughout the book, there are moments of dread and moments where the weight is lifted and Lee feels happiness or at least some peace. This is clearly communicated through the changing imagery in Lee’s illustrations. Their posture and facial expressions transition from feelings ranging from bored through sadness and loneliness to contentment if not happiness. During the lowest of lows, the panels fill with black smoke, drowning out everything else. But as they emerge from limbo with greater peace, the illustrations begin to shift as well. Rather than focusing on illustrations, Lee begins to find beauty in the details of every day. The pages turn into intricately drawn slice-of-life illustrations. But the peace is temporary, as they continue to navigate life transitions.
Lee’s story will be validating for many. Childhood friendships evolve and no longer seem to fit, and even new brighter friendships sometimes start to fade. These feelings are both devastating and almost universal for teenagers.
From the beginning it is also clear that the mother and child relationship is strained, another very personal and universal experience. However, as the memoir unfolds, it is clear that this mother is abusive, and that the strain in the relationship is far from universal. There are moments when the mother seems to begin to understand her child. When transitioning from music to art, Lee’s mother supports and encourages them, knowing that she must support what her child’s passions are, not what she wants them to be. However, that moment is more of an exception than a rule.
At one point in the memoir, Lee suggests that their mother avoided scrutiny from CPS because of “tiger mom” stereotypes of Asian mothers. Lee’s relationship with their family is complicated. Lee at times fears their mother, but at other times feels loved and supported. The dad is mostly sympathetic and warm but allows the abuse to continue. The complexity of the family dynamics unfold in the narrative as teenage Lee begins to unpack their trauma, a choice that invites the audience to acutely feel the betrayal.
The story will be validating for many. Lee is honest about their struggles and journey with relationships and mental health as a teen. There are no clear-cut solutions or fulfilling peace in the end, but there is therapy and the sense that they are on their way to self-acceptance.
In Limbo is not an easy book to read. The pace of this memoir is slow and deliberate. It focuses on Lee’s arc as a teen coming into themselves, rather than the events of their high school years. The content is also heavy. The book includes depression, abuse, and suicide attempts. However, for those who find their way to this memoir, it is a rewarding experience. I will highly recommend it to students who are fans of Tillie Walden, weighty memoirs, or anyone who needs reminding that the comic medium is a literary art form worthy of acclaim.
In Limbo By Deb JJ Lee Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250252661
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18 NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Korean-American, Nonbinary, Depression Character Representation: Korean-American, Depression