The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is likely to appear on many critics’ ten best lists for 2013. It truly is one of those books that’s “that good”, one of those world-creating, plate-spinning works that are both formally innovative and have a deep and intuitive heart that moves readers in unexpectedly profound ways.
I found myself doggedly resisting the charms of Isabel Greenberg’s radiant creation for several weeks after I read my copy of it, maybe because I worried that it was a bit too precious at times, or maybe because I resisted her deliberately primitive art style, which could be seen as crude if it wasn’t so damned lovely to look at. Or maybe I resisted this graphic novel in part because Isabel Greenberg is impossibly young – just 25 years old – and hasn’t paid enough dues to this uncaring comics industry in order to produce a work this lovely, thoughtful and intriguing. If this is her Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future or Lloyd Llewellyn or Music for Mechanics, it’s almost impossible to imagine the kinds of heights to which Greenberg’s talents will ascend.
In the end, though, I had to give in, to accept this delightful work as the outstanding achievement it is. The artfulness and heart of the piece won me over.
Perhaps the only difficult aspect of The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is its title, because it isn’t an encyclopedia as much as it is an abstract atlas: an atlas of our deepest and most heartfelt emotions and relationships: love between sisters, or between parents and children, between gods and men and – in the concept at the center of Early Earth – the relationship between a man and woman who love each other so much that even the fact that they can never touch will not come between them. The inevitable force of the love between the Nord man and the South Pole woman is so powerful that its intensity overcomes the magnetic repulsion that keeps them apart, and represents a wonderful central metaphor for so many things, most especially the power and majesty of storytelling.
See, the Nord man is the world’s greatest storyteller, and it’s his stories that hold this book together, give it its moral and plotwise fiber, its deep resonance that adheres to the bones and casts aside any scoffing hipster dismissal of the sincere heart that lives at the center of this work. As we follow the Nord man’s journey, we witness creation myths and the plots of petty, vain gods; we witness many lands that never existed and glory in their deep mythological nature and surprising resonance; drawing her pages in black and white with one emphasis color, Greenberg creates a full and complex world that feels both unreal and unreal, a myth on top of a realized reality that’s funny and earthy and allegorical all at the same time.
The “Early Earth” part of the title is also a bit of an odd fit. The world that Greenberg creates is both familiar and deliciously unfamiliar all at the same time, a place that resonates with the world as we would have liked to have wished it was. There’s a Noah and a flood myth – but don’t most of the world’s myths contain flood legends? There’s a whale myth, but don’t most of the world’s religions contain a legend like Ahab and the whale? There’s also talk of giants and people who look like Vikings and a land that’s called Britanitarka, all of which prevent Greenberg’s work from seeming too outlandish, too outside of what we want to believe; at the same time, all of this familiarity prevents the story from spinning out in too many unexpected directions.
But in the end it’s not the settings that prevent this narrative from spinning out of control. What keeps focus for Isabel Greenberg and her thrilling graphic novel is the deep heart and passion that lives at the center of this legend. We adore the man from Nord, the world’s greatest storyteller, because he’s steadfast and loving, clever and smart in solving problems. We adore him because Greenberg’s art makes his world glorious and uses recurring images and primitive art in tremendously powerful ways.
Most of all, we love the man from Nord because his heart brings him back to the woman he loves, like Odysseus returning to Helen. Like so many mythological heroes, from Homer’s Odysseus to Joyce’s Ulysses, the Man from Nord is motivated by his heart to journey out and return back a stronger, better and more cultured man.
What sticks in the mind from this remarkable debut graphic novel isn’t the power of Isabel Greenberg’s talespinning or the travelogue of a fascinating world. What sticks in the reader’s mind is a beautiful romance that survives the most impossible obstacles. And isn’t that the stuff of classic literature?