3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life.
Lately, I’ve been concerned for the well-being of a haint. This spirit – or ghost, whatever you want to call it – hangs around my grandparents’ property, as I’ve come to believe. I’m unsure when this concern began. One day I stopped contemplating what it meant for my maternal grandmother to transition to a senior living community and I began thinking about the haint she’d leave behind. What would become of this entity my grandmother didn’t believe in, but I did?
My practical mind – and my more straight-laced family members – argues that this haint is a creation of my late grandfather. A tale he would whisper to me at night in his dimly lit den to get a rise out of me. (And it did, many times for many decades.) But, there are also my own experiences: The feelings of being watched as I roamed my grandparents’ gardens, the energy I felt when I neared the haint’s hiding place beneath their house, the slight shifting of shadows as I watched them gather in the backyard. These occurrences taught me that the haint was real.
I developed a paralyzing fear of this malevolent entity that manifested, in part, as symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder in my childhood. But, I also shaped this fear into quests to confront the haint, to capture her, to even elude her while I embarked on other adventures across my grandparents’ vast property. Real or not, the haint was an integral part of my childhood. She anchored and steadied me when I played by myself and struggled to make sense of my identity in the world. I was lonely, and I needed her.
Loneliness is a constant hallmark in our lives. In our youth, when we are scrambling to form friendships and understand who we are, it is an unshakeable monster. And no matter how comfortable we are being alone in adulthood, it still rears its abominable head. Abby Howard explores these aspects of loneliness in The Crossroads At Midnight (Iron Circus Comics, February 2021). In five horror stories, little kids and older women wrestle with belonging, while teens struggle with comfort and safety. The characters — all girls or women — are diverse in age and ethnicity, but their sense of isolation is painfully the same. And like me, their loneliness is met by supernatural elements.
Written for teen readers, the graphic novel begins with “The Girl In The Fields,” as Frankie sits against a wooden fence complaining to Clara, a girl represented only by a disembodied eye pressed against a knot in the fence. In “The Boy From The Sea” and “Our Lake Monster,” Nia and Mary-Anne, respectively, attempt to find friendship and a diversion from reality with frightening supernatural creatures that they cannot control. In “Mattress, Used” and “Kindred Spirits,” comfort comes at a cost.
The protagonists are at the mercy of their own loneliness. At times, it is their salvation, but most often, it is their undoing. Howard channels a vibe reminiscent of Alvin Schwartz’s series, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, but the full-comic rendering of her horrific imaginations doesn’t leave room for our own to sugarcoat what unfolds across each panel. (Note: The book depicts viscera and gory scenes.) But like any horror auteur worth their salt, Howard doesn’t just portray the terrors that can happen to our bodies. She excises the fears of our minds, too, detailing how the most confident sense of self can be snapped swiftly and reduced to vapor when reality peels back its slack-faced mask to reveal its grotesque nature underneath.
Isolation can be our own doom — we’re left with our clamoring insecurities. On our own, our distorted sense of self can leave us writhing in pain. But human interaction nourishes us. It also provides a reflection pool for how we perceive ourselves. And that self-perception has the power to break us or sustain us. If we wield our self-perception like a cudgel, we will bludgeon anyone who gets too close, upending our chances for connection before they even begin.
It’s a lesson that Cathy Malkasian teaches with grace and whimsy in NoBody Likes You, Greta Grump (Fantagraphics, February 2021). Greta is a little girl who clubs those closest to her over the head with her loneliness and insecurities. Her parents adopt various pets to appease her, but Greta brutalizes each one. The last pet her parents gift her is a gentlemanly tortoise named NoBody who does not suffer Greta’s bullying.
NoBody’s blunt correction, filtered through a dapper and sharp-witted affectation, elicits the root of Greta’s combative attitude: While the other kids at school look like their parents, Greta doesn’t look like hers. Thus, Greta doesn’t believe she fits in anywhere. It’s a heartbreaking and sincere confession that immediately humanizes her.
NoBody and Greta go on to have an intercity adventure that’s wholesome, fun, and speaks to the power of adopted and found families. Malkasian combines dynamic storytelling with delightful illustrations to render big emotions in small spaces. You will smile until your cheeks hurt. You might even shed a few tears too. Without sermonizing, Malkasian also weaves in lessons on kindness, the compound effects of reckless urban development, and competitiveness. There’s no doubt that NoBody Likes You, Greta Grump is a proper allegory for our time.
One of the charming aspects of this middle-grade novel is that in the end, Greta figures out a key problem on her own without help from NoBody and her new friend. She does it through her own agency. In fact, despite the abundant secondary characters, the novel is about Greta’s change, her power, her life. This girl-centered narrative is also why I enjoyed Howard’s The Crossroads At Midnight. But both provided an incredible sense of relatability – of belonging – in their diversity of culture and characters as well. (Shout out to Howard for drawing Black characters who sleep in bonnets and headwraps. The little details are important.) I could find my footing in these stories and not feel erased. Not to sound trite, but representation matters.
This idea of representation and inclusivity is the core tenet of The League Of Super Feminists by Mirion Malle (Drawn & Quarterly, October 2020; tr. Aleshia Jensen). Styled like an introductory primer, the graphic novel provides a brief review of feminism and its related concepts.
Malle discusses the ways media affects how we conceptualize our self-worth and our identities. She asserts that the content we consume is a major determiner of how we perceive friendships, beauty, romance, gender, consent, language, privilege, and even intersectionality. Malle deconstructs each concept into easy to digest points for teen readers just learning feminism – or adults trying to understand the flurry of new concepts emerging in the #MeToo and #RepresentationMatters era. The book isn’t conclusive but stands as a concise guide that leads us in the right direction.
Television, movies, and books have long-peddled harmful stereotypes in their storytelling. The prevalence of these stereotypes influences how we position ourselves in this world. If we cannot see versions of ourselves in animated or imagined worlds, then it makes it that much more difficult for us to inhabit those same versions in reality. And if we never see ourselves replicated or lived in any form, we become remnants of the past — like ghosts waiting to be forgotten.