Danica Novgorodoff. The Undertaking of Lily Chen.

Danica Novgorodoff visits our Library Monday April 7th at 7:30 PM in support of her new graphic novel The Undertaking of Lily Chen (First Second Press, 2014).  She’ll present recent work, maybe do some live drawing, talk about her process, hang out, have a good time.

novgorodoff chen lily mule

In The Undertaking of Lily Chen a young Chinese man is confronted with a daunting task.  After accidentally causing his brother’s death, Deshi’s parents demand that he find a corpse bride to join his brother in his journey to the afterlife.  Deshi is haunted like Hamlet, agonized with guilt and familial responsibility, driven to find a suitable bride for his brother,  but what bride could satisfy his parent’s memory of their beloved first born son?  The world is short of eligible and lovely young corpses, perhaps it would be best if he made one of his own…

The story is is by turns restless, antic, comic, moody, brooding.– leaving doubt whether Deshi’s quest will resolve as romantic comedy or a tragedy of honorable intentions gone awry.  Dialogue is snappy and humorous, especially when corpse-hunter Song, and potential corpse-to-be Lily enter the picture.

As for Novgoroff’s style, her watercolors over cartoony lines are similarly restless, antic, moody, etc.   There are graphic novelists who are clearly comic book lifers, comfortable in the medium with a breezy ease borne of long familiarity, but whose work is devoid of struggle, energy, depth,  and never tests their own comfort zone.  And then there artists who fall into comics work because they have stories to tell and a single painting cannot quite express what needs to be said, shown, given a life of it’s own.

To my eyes Danica Novgorodoff’s work falls into this latter category, the story tugging at its halter eager to canter ahead, but the art sometimes forces you to pause every now and again on an establishing setting or a hesitant moment to linger a long while and smell the breeze.    The plot moves well, the characters are distinct and interesting– cartoony where her backgrounds can be painterly.  It’s a style that grew on me, I liked it better on second reading than my initial blaze through the plot.  When the story slows enough to render background detail more than washes of color over loopy caricature, the art gains its real strength.  Which is fine, the dialogue and energy of the plot and characters carry through even when the details are sparse.

I get the impression of Novgorodoff as a working artist, the kind who seems as though they could be designing t-shirts or fabric patterns or hanging works in galleries or scribbling on a sketchpad in a copy shop– but no matter what they will be always creating something.   As artists we’re fortunate to be born into an era where there is a market to tell stories in panels.  Years ago this sort of story would be sitting in a drawer somewhere, the artist entertaining a few friends every now and again.  Now there’s room for this sort of thing to find a ready audience.   A good thing, the book deserves it.

Recommended for teens and up.



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