An Otherworldly Graphic Adventure: “Eartha” by Cathy Malkasian

An Otherworldly Graphic Adventure: “Eartha” by Cathy MalkasianEartha by Cathy Malkasian
on April 4th 2017
Format: Hardcover
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Malkasian’s stunning landscapes and depictions of nature, gestural character nuance, and sophisticated storytelling are on display in her latest graphic novel. For a thousand years, the unfinished dreams―sex fantasies, murder plots, wishful thinking―from the City Across the Sea came to Echo Fjord to find sanctuary. Emerging from the soil, they took bodily form and wandered the land, gently guided by the fjord folk. But recently they've stopped coming, and Eartha wants solve the mystery. Without thought or hesitation―the city isn’t on any map, or in anyone’s memory―she ventures into the limitless waters, hoping to find the City.

I had almost no clue what to expect when I picked up Eartha at the library, but as it turns out, stumbling across it in the stacks was serendipitous. Never before have I been so truly captivated by a graphic novel. To say that Eartha has set a new bar for the potential I’ve come to expect of a graphic novel is an understatement. The fantastic art is only where this graphic novel’s merits begin!

 

The art in Eartha is breathtaking — muted and soft, yet capable of depicting grand scenes and detailed characters with apparent ease. I couldn’t help but linger on each gorgeous panel. Malkasian does incredible things with some pencil and a bit of color! The earth tones and light blues, greens, and purples are calming and dreamlike, easy on the eyes, and a great showcase for the exquisite lines and details. The rolling, generous curves of Echo Fjord’s rural landscape contrast nicely with the well-ordered, lofty lines of the City.

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Though it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the landscapes, the characters in Eartha wage a good war for your attention. Malkasian doesn’t shy away from drawing large, detailed characters. Most of all, her characters aren’t always good-looking: they often border on ugly. But she creates lively, expressive characters that steal the scene in each panel. Each character feels individual and interesting, with their own personality and quirks. Diversity in the characters abounds in a very natural way. One of my favorite characters is Old Lloyd, a senior archivist and “the most cantankerous resident of Echo Fjord” — he’s unapologetically blunt, crafty when he needs to be, and colorful, yet caring.

But I definitely have a soft spot for our title character and heroine, Eartha. Though she’s soft-spoken, Eartha helps binds the the story together.

Though larger by far than anyone else in her home of Echo Fjord, she’s incredibly strong (particularly physically!), kind, and compassionate. She’s much beloved by her friends and neighbors, and is always helping them out and carrying things when she can. She’s open and friendly, to the point of being gullible at times. Her thoughts are very honest, and though Eartha cares deeply about others, she’s not always as sure about her own place or purpose in things.

Eartha is described as a modern fable; as in any fairy tale, Eartha sets off alone on a journey to save her home. Echo Fjord has always been refuge for the dreams and fantasies of the folks in the City Across the Sea. The Dreams, taking a semi-physical form that resembles each dreamer, wander the countryside under the supervision of Eartha’s people until they can live out whatever dream it is they have. But after hundreds upon hundreds of years, the Dreams mysteriously stop coming.

Though Eartha believes that she is leaving Echo Fjord to save a friend, her journey brings her to the City Across the Sea, where she must help the people to dream once more. It’s an enormous task, but one perfectly suited to Eartha. Despite the terrible truths and and strange ways of life she encounters in the City, watching Eartha come into her own and discover her own power is something to behold.

But what gets me so incredibly excited about Eartha is its unique fantasy world — dreamlike, a little vague, but rooted in ordinary life. Echo Fjord isn’t anywhere that we know of, but its magic isn’t anything so astounding as say, Rowling’s wizarding world or Tolkien’s high fantasy world. The people of Echo Fjord live pleasant, ordinary lives as farmers and tradesmen, and Eartha’s personal relationships, both new and old, are what form the heart of the story. It just so happens that animals can talk, and that Dreams are harvested along with the regular crops…

I love everything about the Dreams that make their way to Echo Fjord. The idea of our dreams taking physical form is simply brilliant! Without warning, Dreams rise from the ground. The people of Echo Fjord wait for them, holding the Dreams down until a shadow mason can arrive. A shadow is applied to the Dream, grounding it in Echo Fjord so that it won’t float away. Once its dream — a revenge fantasy, a nightmare, a wish — is played out to fulfillment, the Dream steps out into the fields and dissolves, leaving behind only the ashes of its shadow, which are soon swept up. I just love it!

There’s so much more to the story: a strange phenomenon that has swept across the City, a terrible cult-like gang that runs things, and insurgents fighting the system. Eartha is helped by new friends, and learns about the necessity of Dreams and personal connection in the face of pressures to stay “connected” and “in the know.” It’s an amazing ride of a story!

*** Just as a note, there is some sexual imagery, but mature readers likely won’t be bothered by it.

Gorgeous art, touching characters and an amazing fantasy world: Eartha is a triumph of imagination.