Wai Wai Pang (Writer and Artist)
April 4, 2017
Disclaimer: This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.
Strange things happen in small towns. Ripples, the graphic novel debut of Wai Wai Pang, begins with the disappearance of a 13-year-old boy named Luke Phelps from his quiet community. As detectives Pan and Kylie examine the case, evidence mounts up: Luke had trouble adjusting after a move, his parents were too absorbed in their own hectic lives, and at school he was bullied by Hannah, a nasty little thing with the bludgeoning nickname “Hammer.” Yet the fact that Luke was in pajamas when he disappeared suggests that this isn’t a simple case of a runaway teenager. And what of Luke’s best friend? She’s lingering ominously near a lake, throwing stones. Making ripples.
The premise calls to mind the “big crime in a small town” plots of Twin Peaks and Broadchurch, yet Ripples unfolds with a gentle, almost soothing ease. Despite the harrowing subject matter, this isn’t Twin Peaks, Hawkins, Indiana, or even TV’s sweaty, sin-soaked Riverdale, but a town of charming ordinariness, right down to the empty bag of salt-and-vinegar chips littering the grass.
The detectives are kind, but detached; they turn down a frantic mother’s offer of hot tea or coffee “to avoid becoming familiar with the family.” Pan is cute, with comma-shaped eyes, while Kylie’s enormously round head looks like it was pulled out of a pumpkin patch. They’re also so thinly developed they might as well be named Detective #1 and Detective #2. (“Leave it to us, boss,” is an example of their bland, archetypal dialogue.) Still, their blankness works. They’re professionals, here to look around and ask questions. Observe. And Pan’s observations of the small town that give Ripples its warm, beating heart.
Aside from an opening scene she could not have witnessed, Ripples is presented as Detective Pan’s diary, a series of pencil sketches chronicling the case with Sherlock Holmes-ian precision. (Between this and Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters, 2017 has been a good year for graphic novels in the form of fictional journals.) Pan fills the book with hand-drawn maps, building layouts, and sketches of interviewees cleverly presented like animation model sheets. Wai Wai Pang’s attention to detail is striking, and nothing seems to escape her character’s gaze—not even the contents of your breakfast burrito. Ordinary objects, like a dolphin statue on a mantle or an ugly painting of a mallard, are given weight through their sheer specificity—they feel like real things, owned by real people. The “Almighty Hammer” wielded by Hannah is, in actuality, an ordinary hammer wrapped in tinfoil, but it’s the kind of simple object that of course a group of cliquey young teens would revere.
A less successful artistic choice is Pang peppering the book with anthropomorphic characters. Though most of the cast, including Pan, Kylie, and Luke, are human, several of the townspeople are rendered as humanoid animals in clothing. The appearances of frog, cat, and even beaver-people are jarring and slightly disorienting, partly because Pang doesn’t introduce them until about a third of the way into the book. (The seal in a waitress uniform is super adorable, though.) Is this a flourish from Detective Pan as she draws in her notebook, or are we meant to wonder what their species says about their character? Or are they there to be cute? Their inclusion feels arbitrary rather than whimsical, and it’s a distraction from the world Pang is creating.
As for Luke’s fate, I’m loath to say anything about the book’s central mystery, save that it unfolds very differently than the kind of story we expect when two straight-laced detectives roll into a new town. There are clues, and secret clubhouses in the woods, and even a cranky cat-woman fishing by a lake, but it is not a predictable detective story that the reader can analyze and solve. There is a mystery, absolutely–but it’s the kind of “mystery” people mean when they describe miracles.
Ripples begins with a Sherlock Holmes quote: “Leave no stone unturned.” As I finished reading the book, another famous Holmes quote hit me like a stone striking the water: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”