Gingerbread Girl - Paul Tobin (w) Colleen Coover (a)
Top Shelf, $12.95, 978-1-60309-080-3
Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover are of that rare breed of indie creator who spend most of their time working in mainstream comics, yet never compromise their credibility nor their individual sensibilities or aesthetics. So, the release of a new, original work from the duo is a significant event and, indeed, their first creator-owned comic together in over six years.
The “gingerbread girl” of the title refers not to the protagonist — sexually-ambivalent Portlander, Annah Billips — but rather a curious piece of a pseudo-science that she has concocted. The “Penfield homunculus” is a pictorial representation of which areas of the brain correspond to our various motor and sensory functions, resulting in “an upside-down…map of the contralateral side of the body” (thanks, Wikipedia). In Annah’s unreliable and fickle hands, though, it becomes a living, breathing identical twin — a gingerbread girl — extracted from her brain and attempts to explain her emotional incompleteness and dulled tactile senses. It’s certainly a fresh take on the ennui of twentysomethings and, in the world of this story, we’re never quite sure whether it’s sheer hokum.
The reason for the uncertainty comes from the wide variety of narrators who carry the tale like a relay race. Not only do we hear from her girlfriend and jilted boyfriend, giving us a fuller account of Annah’s eccentricities (and their effect on others); but also from a pigeon, a talking bulldog, a phoney mystic and a noted neurobiologist. Like Rashomon or a Robert Browning monologue, we have to scrape beneath the surfaces and attempt to arrive at our own truth about the protagonist. Whichever we arrive at, however, we are still very much endeared towards Annah as she carries a whole lot of humanity beneath her cartoonish quirks.
Coover’s art is breezy and stylish as always. Her clean lines imbue Annah and her girlfriend Chili with a vibrant sense of youth that’s almost palpable. Cute girls are indie cartoonists’ stock-in-trade, though, and it’s her ability to carry that verve over into the most mundane aspects of Gingerbread Girl that makes her such a talent. That the book is set in Coover’s native Portland allows her to weave in many real-world points of reference — from local landmarks, to smart-ass signs from panhandlers — that give it a genuine sense of place.
Even when it comes to rendering the absurd in Annah’s flights of fancy, Coover clearly relishes the challenge, whether it’s a grotesque, yet cute rendering of the Penfield homunculus or Annah’s imagination running riot. Her pedigree with Marvel’s Pet Avengers even shows in the making the animal narrators completely believable and congruous with the world she and Tobin have built. Out of all the various narrators, we can’t help but be charmed most by her classy bulldog.
It’s clear that Tobin and Coover enjoy a special synergism, so completely do their talents fit with one another. For every clever twist of the writing, there is a sharp visual metaphor waiting to match it; writer and artist feeding off each other both charm and confound the reader. The end result is a beautiful poem of a book.
-- Gavin Lees