Radishes takes place in a world I’ve never been to, and yet, I feel right at home in it. The 2016 Ignatz Award winner for Outstanding Minicomic, Radishes is about two teenage girls, Kelly and Beth, who skip school to visit a mysterious seaside market full of shops and wonders. The unnamed setting is a mix of modern and medieval styles, cleverly realized in subtle details—a world of pink chain mail and iced lattes. In a tight twenty pages, artist Carolyn Nowak creates an enchanting and lived-in world that’s irresistible to its adventurous young leads.
Kelly and Beth wander the pier, drinking mango freezies, trying on dresses, and getting their hair done—though here, your hairstylist is an enormous cuddly tiger who helpfully licks your hair into the desired shape. These scenes are instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever gone shopping with a bestie, especially with stop names like “Hot Myopic.” Even the girls’ names, Kelly and Beth, invite a feeling of warm familiarity. These are girls you know, or they might even be you. (Beth rejecting a new dress because “It makes my pit fat stick out” is the realist shit ever.) When they reach the end of the market, the girls discover a lonely, seemingly deserted fruit stand filled with enchanted food. Each bite performs a new trick—”Holy Pork Pie!” Kelly exclaims—but the biggest surprise comes in the form of a radish.
What’s most charming about this comic is Nowak’s rich, nuanced characterization. Radishes feels a bit like dropping the tween girls from Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer into the fantasy world of Legend of Korra. Personality shines through Nowak’s character designs and well-observed body language. A single glance at the cover reveals so much about the characters and how they relate to each other. Real care has gone into giving the girls distinct, individual looks. Kelly is tall as a beanpole, carefully accessorized, leaning in with a casual confidence and an arm over Beth’s shoulder (In one crucial scene, Kelly shows her protective side by shooing away a persistent jerk making Beth uncomfortable). Beth is softer, curvier, with clothing that’s less flashy, but lovingly hand-stitched, and with adorable rainbow patches on the shoulders. Neither girl looks at the reader; Kelly’s glance is aimed at the marketplace around her, a smile stretching across her face, while Beth fiddles with her purse strap and turns her head, shyly looking away.
Glances are important in Radishes—namely what the girls see in each other, and in themselves. Early on, we see Beth trying on earrings and a scarf, studying her face in the mirror. In six expressive panels, we see her smile, play with her earrings, pop a zit in disgust, and finally cover her face with her scarf; they’re six stages of, well, not grief, but of that awkward feeling that comes with standing in front of an unflattering shop mirror. But when Kelly tries on a new dress, she turns to Beth for a reaction instead of going to a mirror. “Kellyyyyy you look sooo good!!!” Beth cheers; the friends see only beauty in each other, wholeheartedly. Kelly returns the compliment later, looking at a pictograph of the two laughing after their brush (literally) with the tiger. “Look at these beautiful girls,” she says, in one of the comic’s sweetest panels. This all pays off by the comic’s end, where the girls see reflections of themselves, in a manner of speaking.
I won’t say more than that, save that it’s a wonderfully tender ending that takes all the right steps. With its funny, tender, and beautifully drawn story of female friendship, this mini-comic emerged as my favorite purchase at Small Press Expo this year. Radishes is simply delicious.