Words & Art: Evan Dahm / First Second Book
I once said that If you’re newer to the alternative scene for comics, like myself, Evan Dahm’s Riceboy is perhaps one of the industry’s best-kept secrets and certainly one of the best books to take a chance on. As a veteran of the indie comics scene, more and more of his past work is surfacing to those who previously only read mainstream comic book and titles. And newer work of his is finding new audiences today. Island Book fits into that second category, and I’ve glad to have read it.
This graphic novel for the middle school crowd, Island Book, features a main character by the name of Sola. She’s different in a way that’s mostly frowned upon, is ever curious about the outside world, and how society is structured. Because of this, the folks label her as cursed, the other kids won’t play with her, and think her hobbies like map making are strange. When a creature known simply as The Monster came to their island, young Sola stood transfixed, unafraid and alone while others fled in fear. Ever since then, she’s been treated as an outcast, and it soon serves as a catalyst for her to embark on a journey to face what lies beyond her home.
Since this graphic novel is geared more to the younger reader, I appreciate him explicitly making the main character a child and a girl at that. Too often I read epic tales for this age group and sincerely wish more young women, especially girls were the heroes, the leaders, the captains in the stories. Young Sola sets off on a quest to uncover the unknown, to get answers to her questions, and she ends up accomplishing so much. She treks across the waters with a bravery not seen in others twice her age nor twice her size. She assembles a crew, makes repairs on the fly, makes daring escapes, and encourages others to step out of their comfort zone. There are times when she’s tearful and seemingly regretful, and scared and terribly upset—defending herself when trapped against might and arrogance.
Dahm thrives in creating worlds and all manner of creatures and beings of all shapes and sizes that speak to a vivid imagination. His poetically unique art style features some towering structures and some far-off things on and off the sea that fit perfectly into the fantasy genre. In his world building, across pages we are granted glimpses of the sea, of the waves page after page and the glimpses of The Monster, ever elusive. Some of my favorite visuals include panels of Sola coming into conflict with those who are older, supposedly wiser who have settled into authority figures territory. Sola’s determined and much smaller defiance in opposed to their imposing figures is a contrast to see and soak in.
Yet even though this is a children’s book, adults can certainly enjoy this read. After reading Riceboy and looking at Vattu, I feel Dahm has a gift for crafting stories that are earmarked for the strange and wonderful benchmarks. Island Book doesn’t spoon-feed you the story. You, the reader, can make up your own mind of the creatures that become Sola’s allies. Is Hinder, at first glance is a big fearful oaf or does he gain your respect at the end with seeing the journey through? Is Wick gifted with the flowery language a distraction or he is great addition to the crew for being Hinder’s foil?
I think what is the most provoking theme of the entire book is choice. Making up your mind to go through with a plan even if it’s only a working one. Choosing to stand up and do the thing that you’ve been afraid nearly your whole life of doing. Making a deliberate decision to step away from the crowd, your community, what echoes of the land that you’ve been strictly pushed to in order to choose something better or worse, set on making your own stories. And even struggling to accept the choices that others make, even if they know that they’ll sink without dry land under their feet afterwards.
Island Book ventures into a superb narrative that can stand on its own that reminds us of how valuable teamwork is; no one can do it alone, of friendships found and held fast on to as we’re redefining who we are. This graphic novel dives into who you become when facing what you’ve been chasing—challenging the norm and what’s been set in stone by others and choosing your destiny. This is a book that in which characters wrestle with fear, complacency, and being lost in more than one way.
Young Sola, with her small stature who had never left her green island before, saw the world beyond and came back alive with some answers, with knowledge that she owed no one. Island Book is an unconventional looking book about facing the unknown and coming back with the understanding that not everything in the world is to be understood or solved or conquered and accepting that.
8.9 Towers of Doom Out of 10
— Evan Dahm 🌊 TCAF 291 (@evandahm) May 8, 2019