A heady mix of the spellbinding, the poignant, the wacky and, at times, the heartbreaking, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a book worth both the wait and the hype that has surrounded it.
Back in 2011 when Isabel Greenberg won the Observer/Jonathan Cape short story competition with ‘Love in a Very Cold Climate’ – the story that essentially bookends her latest work – it was most obvious that this distinctive and quirky new creative voice was one that should be carefully watched. Over the last few years Greenberg aficionados have been able to enjoy her work in bite-sized spoonfuls via the likes of Nobrow’s A Graphic Cosmogony, Tom Humberstone’s Solipsistic Pop anthology, or her self-published comics. The publication of The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, though, is the debut full-length graphic novel that those who has been fervently following her artistic career have been anticipating with rapt enthusiasm, and one that imbues that hackneyed old adage that “good things come to those who wait” with a resonant fortitude that belies its status as tired old cliché.
Set in a hitherto undocumented period of human history, some time before dinosaurs ruled the planet and when the world had multiple satellites circling it, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth showcases the outlandish legends of this world via a roaming storyteller on a spiritual quest, all presented with Greenberg’s idiosyncratic storytelling tics and folk art visual sensibilities. The great central narrative tenets of folklore – the quest, the love story and the morality tale – are combined within one uber-mythology that comprises elements of Judeo-Christian tradition, classical literature and fables familiar to us all by dint of their being handed down through the generations.
This sweeping history begins with the touching account of central character Nord Man (the aforementioned storyteller) finally finding his soulmate at the South Pole, on the other side of the world. To spout another old chestnut of a saying, but one with an impeccable provenance, “the course of true love never did run smooth” and our unfortunate lovers discover that they cannot touch as, due to a cruel trick of fate, they magnetically repulse each other. To fill up those long winter nights at the South Pole, then, they tell each other stories, and it’s from here that we begin to learn of the Nord Man’s circumnavigation of Early Earth on a spiritual mission to recover the lost part of his soul and find enlightenment.
This framing sequence gives Greenberg the opportunity to tour her readership through the fantastically realised territories of her creation from Britanitarka, the home of the warring Dags and Hals, to the great towered city of Migdal Bavel, and beyond. On his way the Nord Man thrills the locals with his storytelling skills and listens to the yarns of the locals he encounters. It’s a journey that will treat the reader to accounts of wise old ladies getting the better of ferocious giants, the truth behind the Great Flood, and a rather unique take on the creation myth. And all the while BirdMan, the great god of Early Earth, is pulling the strings and observing events via his toiletry scrying pools in the otherworldly Cloud Castle…
Greenberg is never shy about appropriating recognisable material from religion or legend but the fun here is in seeing how she puts her own unconventional twist on these much told parables. Odysseus’s match with the Cyclops, the judgement of Solomon, the Tower of Babel and the discovery of Moses in the bulrushes are just a handful of the re-imagined situations that she re-interprets and adapts into her chronicles of Early Earth’s past.
A selection of Greenberg’s captivating imagery from the book
Fret not that this is some staid work requiring years of biblical scholarship to comprehend, however. One of the most acute joys herein is that The Encyclopedia of Early Earth truly represents that much overused term “all-ages comics”, appealing as it will on different levels to adults and children alike. Older readers will chuckle at how Greenberg subverts the substance of legend and religion but for kids the book can be read at face level and appreciated as a jolly romp through the customs and rituals of the oddball denizens of this curious realm. Accentuating this appeal is Greenberg’s crafty use of language. Her insertion of modern idioms into the dialogue of her characters adds another level of sly irreverence to the book, deconstructing the portentousness of the usual object lessons of myth, and juxtaposing cheeky anachronistic impertinence with straight-faced earnestness to wonderfully appealing tonal effect.
For a book that concerns itself so much with the art of storytelling it’s interesting to note that The Encyclopedia of Early Earth has such a loose narrative structure itself. There’s something enchantingly rambling here, a sense of almost compulsive digression as stories are told within stories and diversionary offshoots to the main event are allowed to propagate. In this respect the book is a fine embodiment of the oral tradition it seeks to recreate and as a technique it allows Greenberg the opportunity to build up a greater sense of the geography and vastness of her Early Earth.
There’s a very Noggin the Nog appeal to Greenberg’s visuals; a carefully constructed faux naivety to them that is both charming and entrancing. It’s a stylistic approach that knowingly winks at the readership, with its contrived use of perspective and muted colouring giving the impression that what we are reading is truly an artefact from another age. Some sequences may resemble the layout of a centuries old tapestry, for example, while elsewhere a page may be designed to recreate the air of an unsophisticated map from antiquity. It draws the reader into the notion that they are, indeed, reading something out of its time, and provides an extra layer to this rather magical work.
A heady mix of the spellbinding, the poignant, the wacky and, at times, the heartbreaking, this is a book worth both the wait and the hype that has surrounded its release. In a remarkable year of equally remarkable U.K. original graphic novels The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is one of 2013’s comics gems and a true testament to the fertile imagination of Isabel Greenberg.
Isabel Greenberg (W/A) • Jonathan Cape, £16.99, October 3rd 2013