Review time! with ‘The Ghost, The Owl’

“There’s not enough room in this world for my pain”

The Ghost, The Owl is a kid-friendly book that comes to us from the fine folk at Action Lab. It will set you back a mere $9.99, which ain’t bad for a nice hardcover even though it’s not terribly long – it’s only 48 pages. But each page is densely packed with beautiful art, so reading it is quite the sumptuous experience. Sara Richard provides the art, while Franco is the writer (Marshall Dillon lettered it and Jesse Post edited it). Let’s take a look at it, shall we?

Richard’s art is really the biggest reason to get this book. Her ghost, a young girl who doesn’t remember her name, sports too-big manga-ish eyes (I don’t mind it in some circumstances but it seems incongruous here), but otherwise, the art is superb. Each page is a big drawing, as Richard does use “panel borders” but instead of separating the panels from each other, she uses the flow of wind or the horizon or other parts of nature to create panels, and the effect is beautiful. Her ghost has sweeping, lush hair that almost transforms the very landscape, and Richard often draw it with little drops of dew or even the occasional butterfly in it. It creates an ethereal tone to the story and is used to good effect as a contrast between the earthy forest the ghost moves through and the violence that we get later in the story. Richard’s depiction of the entire ghost (not just her hair), which emphasizes the unreality of her situation, is contrasted nicely with the beautifully detailed animals, which brings a weight to the owl and his friends. The ghost’s haziness also acts a good contrast to the woman who lives in the small forest house. Jessica is drawn as a beautiful woman, but she’s also real, so Richard gives her freckles and somewhat frizzy hair, making her more “real” than the ghost. The edginess of the forest, where animals must live relatively harshly because danger lurks in unexpected places, and the ghost’s existence, which can be dangerous but is much less worrisome, is brought together at the house, which exists in the real world, so Richard paints it with the same earthy greens and browns that she uses for the forest, but it’s also a haven, so the edges are smoother and there’s a tinge of airiness that welcomes people in. The evil man who tries to take Jessica’s land and Jessica herself is very hard-edged and monstrous, and Richard paints him as almost a scar across the land, as he becomes less and less human from his admittedly low starting point. The violence at the end is also beautifully done, as the ghost tries to match the man’s monstrousness and the owl relies on his innate goodness to figure out a way to stop the man. Richard does a wonderful job showing how the ghost’s monstrous appearance comes from a place of desperation to defend Jessica while the man’s comes from a place of horrible aggression, so he becomes far less than human as the confrontation goes on. Richard’s gorgeous painted work makes every page something over which to linger, and it makes the book a stunning experience.

Of course, it’s still a story, and that part is a bit disappointing. I get that it’s kid-friendly, and it’s a fable, so it’s not going to be too deep, but the length of the book works against it, because Franco codes everything so simplistically that the lack of compelling characters is a bit of an issue. Of course the ghost is good, the owl is good, Jessica is good, and the man is evil, but they’re all simply archetypal caricatures, so the hints that there could be something deeper never pan out. The owl, for instance, attacks the man once and is taken to a godlike Parliament of Owls who tell him that he’s not allowed to interfere with humans or ghosts. The owl, however, ignores them. The lesson is that you need to do good in the world no matter the consequences, and that’s a good lesson, but we’re never actually told what the consequences are. The Parliament just says they won’t be as lenient if it happens again, and of course, it does happen again. So what happens to the owl? Does he get punished for his goodness? I know that’s not a lesson that Franco wants to teach, but he brought it up by introducing the Parliament, so he should follow through. The owl often says he does good things without worrying about a reward, another good lesson, but at the end, the moral seems to twist to “if you do good things for people, they will do good things for you,” which is not how the real world works, unfortunately. Franco should have stuck with his first lesson, which is that it doesn’t matter if you get a reward, you should still do good things. It’s also kind of unclear why the ghost is hanging around. I mean, Franco tells us toward the end, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense. He apparently just wanted a story with a ghost in it, which is fine, but if you’re going to answer the question “why,” you should have a better answer. Still, the story is a nice little fable – the ghost and the owl have a charming friendship, and the lesson of standing up to evil is never a bad one. I get that it’s not going to be any deeper than that because of the audience, but I’ve always thought that too many people underestimate children. I mean, if this is supposed to be for 4-year-olds, sure, it doesn’t have to be any deeper. But even slightly older kids can understand nuance a bit better than adults give them credit for. So it would have been nice if Franco had delved a bit more.

Even with some reservations, I liked the comic, because it tells a nice short story and the art is stupendous. I can’t recommend it whole-heartedly simply because I’m not the target audience, but it’s still a charming comic. It reinforces some good ideas about friendship and how we should live, and while I wish it had gotten into that a bit more, it’s never a bad thing to have a nice, positive book about being nice to people. What a novel idea!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

4 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I recently bought The Ghost, The Owl on the strength of the artwork, which is really good… but at the same time, leads to my biggest (I’m gonna say confusion) about the book.

    The artist did a lot of research into getting different animals right. The trouble is, it chose several different species seemingly at random – so we end up with kookaburras (Australia), capybaras (South America), raccoons (North America) and other weird mixes of species. The titular owl is an African species (according to my parents’ best friends, who are African and birders – so they’d know).

    So I’m left to wonder – where is it supposed to be set? A secondary fantasy world? Maybe, but the human clothing style looks like standard Victorian era… And even secondary fantasy worlds usually have consistent-with-our-world biospheres.

    Anyway, that’s just a confusion, it’s not a ‘they got one thing ‘wrong’ therefore it sucks’. ftr, I think it’s a decent comic. Not absolutely amazing, but not bad either. I’m just a little confused.

    1. Greg Burgas

      That’s an interesting point. I didn’t think about it while I was reading, but it’s certainly odd, because you’re right – it’s not really set anywhere, but if it were a fantasy world, you’d expect some “rules” about the biosphere.

      This is why I get bugged about historical problems – someone out there (you, in this instance) is going to know if things are wonky, so it’s not hard to do a little bit of research!

  2. Simon

    Well, for a realistic owl story, there’s Maggie Umber’s THE SOUND OF SNOW FALLING (2017).

    * (w/ 2 pages) http://www.brokenfrontier.com/maggie-umber-sound-snow-falling-2dcloud-safari-festival/
    * (w/ 6 pages) http://smashpages.net/2017/07/31/smash-pages-qa-maggie-umber-on-sound-of-snow-falling/
    * (5 pages) http://2dcloud.com/sound-of-snow-falling
    * “It’s the story of two great horned owls in a forest during the winter. A simple enough tale, but one that truly shines thanks to the talent of Maggie Umber. Not only has she spent a number of years researching and studying the behaviour of owls in the wild, she also aimed for accuracy with their anatomy. This isn’t simply an academic tale, but a poetic narrative with a documentary undertone to it.” @ http://www.comicsbeat.com/interview-maggie-umber-on-her-latest-graphic-novel-owls-research-colours/

    And for a good all-ages ghost story, there’s Maggie Thrash’s LOST SOUL BE AT PEACE (2018).

    * (29-page “sample chapter”) http://www.candlewick.com/cat.asp?mode=book&isbn=0763694193
    * “Mixing recollections with a supernatural Hamlet-inspired theme, her watercolor-tinged illustrations add a wonderfully ethereal layer to an already nuanced offering. Defying genre boundaries, Thrash has proven herself a capable memoirist able to pinpoint her own pivotal life moments, turn them into art, and take risks with conventions.” @ https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/maggie-thrash/lost-soul-be-at-peace/

    (Both among the bests GNs of their release year, too.)

    – “He apparently just wanted a story with a ghost in it”

    Ghosts are apparently considered a “safer” alternative to zombies, vampires, werewolves, and witches, to make teen lit sell easier, though they don’t all earn it: GUNNERKRIGG COURT, GLISTER, FRIENDS WITH BOYS, ANYA’S GHOST, SECONDS, GHOSTS, ARCHIVAL QUALITY, GHOST FRIENDS FOREVER, SHEETS, LOST SOUL BE AT PEACE, WATERSNAKES, GHOST HOG, …

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