Swedish artist Moa Romanova’s first graphic novel is a loosely autobiographical comic that was initially published in her native country as Alltid Fucka Upp, but has proven relatable enough for translation into seven (!) languages. The English version is dubbed Goblin Girl — translated courtesy of Melissa Bowers and published this March by Fantagraphics — and traces the slightly fictionalized version of the author herself as she comes to terms with depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal, all while navigating a new relationship with a famous, older man she meets on a dating app.
The story launches right into an engaging, funny, melancholy, and familiar storyline without preamble, as Moa makes her fateful connection within the first two pages. From there, it evolves in unexpected, unusual ways with the benefit of Moa as our prickly, not-quite reliable narrator. From the comic’s main narrative to the wealth of detail crammed into every off-color, intriguingly stylized panel, there’s much to take in and appreciate about what is effectively a coming-of-age tale that refuses to leave out the messy bits.
She finds surprising moments of peace, runs from raves, and questions the nature of her relationship with her patron as she haltingly finds her voice and the confidence to face her anxieties on her own. The character struggles with a maniacal, unempathetic therapist and maintaining her relationships, her depression casting a veil of isolation over her, even during moments like partying at said rave with her friends.
As Moa wanders a wintry landscape trying to make sense of her life, colors fade and burst suddenly into dazzling tableaus of surreality and bright humor. It’s off-putting at first, but once I got used to it, it was quite appealing — even calming in comparison to the sometimes nerve-wracking written content. The art might be my favorite thing here; characters’ limbs are warped, their facial features simplified or even obscured (as in the case of Moa’s famous benefactor), and the largely black-and-white ink work is occasionally shot through with quiet pops of muted color.
Moa slowly unpacks the impact of this newfound relationship and her anxious efforts to overcome emotional disorders, but she keeps a surprisingly sardonic sense of humor about it all. Her iPhone searches are endearingly quirky — “Jon Hamm penis” is in there, as is “Finding Bigfoot streaming” — and her mundane struggles are relatable”: those pesky batteries are never charged when you need them to be, and her fantasies are recognizably weird. At one point, she turns into an anime character, all giant eyes, with the art style shifting to match.
From dealing with fuckboys to being the lone sober person at the party, her misadventures read as true-to-life as the art teases out the absurdity in the everyday. Although the pace may be a bit slow and winding for American readers more accustomed to snappy slice-of-life comics like the Archie series, Goblin Girl has its appeal for anyone who has struggled with similar issues to Moa. Thanks to the elongated bizarre art, watching Moa come to terms with the ugliness of daily life is a beautiful experience.
Goblin Girl is out now via the Seattle-based publisher Fantagraphics. Get a copy of the comic here.