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October 25, 2013 6:15 pm
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, by Isabel Greenberg, Jonathan Cape RRP£16.99, 176 pages
In the beginning was the world, and the world was odd. At least according to Isabel Greenberg, an award-winning graphic novelist, whose depiction of the Earth “after the Big Bang, but long before the Permian or Mesozoic Eras” is a cornucopia of classical allusion and whimsical invention.
Early Earth, as Greenberg dubs it, had three moons, a slimmer circumference, and a primitive civilisation of which no trace survives. This civilisation is depicted in her graphic “Encyclopedia” largely through the travels of the Storyteller, a young man from the polar regions of the land of Nord, who travels the still embryonic globe in search of a missing part of his soul.
Greenberg populates her world with giants and Cyclops, shamans and spirits. There are meddling Gods above, man-eating whales below, and 1,001 different varieties of snow.
Anyone on nodding terms with the Odyssey, the Bible or simply the works of Philip Pullman will be familiar with many of the events that occur here, although this may not ready them for the cheeky tweaks that Greenberg offers. So the Cyclops is defeated when a bird defecates in his eye, while Cain and Abel (here Dag and Hal) fall out after falling in love with the same girl.
There is a pleasing unity to these far-flung stories appearing alongside one another. Greenberg is clearly fascinated by the universality of myth. Her non-canonical approach, abetted by her use of colloquialisms (“Lads lads lads! Waaaay!” cry some pillaging tribesmen), keep portentousness at arm’s length.
At the same time, her black ink drawings resemble woodcuts, lending the book a naive quality nicely in keeping with the fabled subject matter. Stark snow-spotted frames alternate with busy forested compositions overflowing with distraction, and those willing to sniff around the book’s corners will be well rewarded by a host of ephemera.
If there is a complaint to be made it is that, despite the book’s name, it lacks structural cohesion. Indeed, the Encyclopedia of Early Earth ends up looking a bit like one of the maps drawn by the monkeys of Migdal Bavel – one of the book’s charming yarns – fantastical, bizarre, but frustratingly incomplete. Here’s hoping that Greenberg will soon have a chance to fill in the gaps.
George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers)
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