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book review

Imagine the waterworld of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, as drawn in the style of Persepolis and punched-up by Jeanette Winterson at her earliest and most puckish, and you have some idea of Isabel Greenberg's debut graphic novel, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. The latest arrival from Britain's burgeoning comics scene, the Encyclopedia combines the cockeyed fantasy of that tradition with its minimalist, poster-ready design, and so creates Early Earth, a realm populated with naked giants, jealous gods, and warring clans of Iron Age island-dwellers.

The book records the legends of these imaginary people in a series of intertwined narratives, as collected by a nameless storyteller whose quest we follow throughout. Our hero voyages across Early Earth from his home in the north, searching for stories and the part of his soul he's lost – as well as the love that he doesn't know he lacks.

That elusive love lies at the heart of the Encyclopedia – the anthropological fancies that make up its lore are no match for its simple moments of romantic ardour. The comic's fictive legends too often just warm over the Bible and Native creation myths, or resurrect figures like Odysseus or Scheherazade, with little of the imaginative synthesis that distinguishes something like Earthsea. But when this book does focus on affairs of the heart, it becomes, however briefly, inventive and original.

The comic's first image shows the meeting of our Nordic storyteller and his soulmate, a woman from the South Pole, while the final frame depicts two "firebirds" mating. The lovers from opposite poles magnetically repel each other, while the fowl erupt into deadly flame, thanks to the heat of their passion.

These glimpses of impossible love possess an inspired, lyrical quality too seldom on display elsewhere in the book's stock attempts at being epic or historical.

Those lofty traditions, at least, get treated with commendable levity. Battles may be waged, or deities may smite their creations, but these events never result in dire consequences. With nothing much at stake, each short tale hastens to its conclusion briskly and with good humour. Merely humour, though, and not with wit: this is the kind of book where trained monkeys serve as shorthand for comedy, and where authorial asides pass for actual jokes (on the sudden appearance of a large egg floating in space: "Don't ask how it got there, OK"). Such digressions should leaven the huge chunks of text required to convey information about Early Earth, but they often simply lengthen the captions that lower over the images.

Thankfully, while the book's prose rarely makes this world come alive, Greenberg's cartooning is often vivid and surprising. Dramatic sequences like the storyteller being swallowed by a whale do more to draw the reader into Early Earth than any amount of exposition, as do the handful of arresting compositions that show the universe that a demi-god creates in her hair, or the wonky, disproportionate cities our hero visits.

The artist's palette, too – cool blues and dull earth tones, stark and icy blacks and whites – nicely conjures her boreal world, while her linework looks suitably rough-hewn, as though haggled from blocks of wood. Greenberg's Early Earth may be light on the very storytelling its premise demands, but when it opts to craft tales with images instead, it becomes capable, promising work.

Sean Rogers is a PhD candidate at York University, studying Canadian comics. He has written for The Walrus and The Comics Journal.

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