Smudged Alienation: Aisha Franz’s Earthling Reviewed
Aisha Franz (w, a), Helge Dascher (translator)
Drawn & Quarterly
November 4, 2014
I’m not a very impressive artist. Once in a while I like to pick up a pencil and draw a pinup of a favorite or even an original character of mine, but for the most part I focus on writing and leave the art for people who actually have things like tablets, discipline and talent. Still, I’ve drawn enough to know the horror of making a mistake, trying to erase it and seeing the once-pristine paper filled with hideous pencil smudges.
German artist Aisha Franz’s debut graphic novel Earthling is full of those cursed smudges. They’re the color in the characters’ cheeks, the steam coming off their food, and they fill the big dull gray sky over everything. I met Franz last year at Maryland’s Small Press Expo, where she drew an adorable picture in my book copy with colored pencils, alternating skillfully between one color and the next so that nothing bled together. She has skill and talent, and she’s used it to turn what would ordinarily be a mistake into a grungy aesthetic. The look of this book is unforgettable.
So it’s a bit of a shame to say that I think the story is merely “good.” Earthling tells the story of a young pre-teen girl called Madchen (which I’m still not sure is actually a name, like the Twin Peaks actress, or just another way of saying “girl” given this book’s original language), her unnamed teenage older sister, and her mother, Doris. Frustrated by their absent father, who is coming home to take the daughters on a vacation, and also the struggles of growing older, the three each become preoccupied by a fantasy. For Doris, it’s the image of who she could have been if she hadn’t married. For the older sister, it’s what she and local bad boy Daniel could become, as well as her ambivalence about her more-innocent childhood. Meanwhile, Madchen has an imaginary friend in an odd alien who can talk to her through her radio static, a game which becomes less innocent when she becomes preoccupied/horrified by her sister’s growing exploration of her sexuality.
There are a number of great independent comics that use fantasy/imaginary elements to heighten real-life anxieties (the Scott Pilgrim series is probably the most popular example of this but even works based on real events like Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints and Craig Thompson’s Blankets have used this trope). Besides the art, it’s this element that most pulled me in to Earthling. The older sister’s story is fairly typical — she wants a guy she probably shouldn’t want, a friend she was once very close with hurts her because of him — yet Franz writes her anxieties well. We see her fret over text messages and how her body looks in her underwear. When she and her friend Manu crawl into an old pipe and — after an amazing sequence where they roll down the hill and turn into smudges, then come out in a fairytale world drawn like a children’s book — the older sister tries to enjoy the fantasy but finds herself angry when she can’t find a place to go to the bathroom, the cute animals don’t want to play with her and her cigarette has changed into chocolate. She’s caught between two stages of life, not comfortably fitting into either yet.
Doris’ fantasy — a vision of a happier, more successful self in her television — is a little more typical and obvious, but it’s balanced by moments of her struggling to discipline her kids or getting worn down by real-life frustrations: her jacket getting ripped at the dry cleaners or the dishwasher falling down on her foot and cutting it through her shoe and her being too tired to take care of it or her bloody foot. Madchen’s fantasy is typical of a child. Confused and feeling cut off from her family and other girls her age, who discuss sex in a way that makes her uncomfortable, she play-acts these sexual situations — kissing, looking at herself in the mirror naked, talking about “doing it,” with her alien friend. (The original German title of the story is called Alien, and I think it still works better, images of xenomorphs aside. Madchen feels alienated from many in the story.) It’s also interesting in how it becomes more elaborate, beginning with her playing with finger-puppets on the grass and ending with a scary dream of abduction. It’s not a part of the story that will appeal to everyone — given Madchen’s age, the sexual stuff is going to feel uncomfortable to some readers (although nobody ever takes advantage of Madchen). So trigger or squick warning there, but for what it’s worth I found it fairly realistic.
I think my issue with this story is that I liked the smaller/more realistic moments so much that when it became explicitly fantastic I rejected it. I recently finished Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I really enjoyed how the fantasy elements could easily be interpreted as real or imaginary. There are some fantasy sequences in Earthling that are meant to be fantasy, like when the older sister fools around with her peas on her plate and imagines them talking to each other/screaming as they get crushed in an effort to distract herself from an uncomfortable conversation with her mother. The older sister’s arc also comes to an effective, realistic end. Doris and Madchen, on the other hand, have endings that beg a supernatural explanation, and while they could work, I preferred the grounding in reality.
Still, I can’t complain too much about Earthling. It’s a nice, thoughtful and, at 208 pages, a relatively short evening read. The deliberately more grungy art style is unique, and I really can’t wait to see more from Franz, even if she chooses to never draw this particular way again. In an industry that tends to privilege English- and Japanese-language works over all others, I think this book, and this artist, deserve a look from the serious and adventurous comics reader.