There are few cartoonists who get so much from so little as Sophie Yanow. I offer as an example of this assertion her latest autobio work, the Retrofit/Big Planet-published What Is A Glacier?, which clocks in at just 32 economically-scripted pages, is illustrated in a much looser and more free-flowing style than her previous (equally exemplary) works — one that puts a premium on extracting maximum emotional “punch” out of each line, whether straight or squiggled — and yet it’s packed with more sheer information, both personal and global, than most comics that are three, even four, times longer. How packed, you might ask? So packed that even after six consecutive readings I’m still trying to figure out whether or not I’ve not so much caught everything, but absorbed it all.
Juxtaposition is our word of the day here, and the brilliant way Yanow utilizes it allows her to explore two intersecting narratives at one, both of which have any number of intriguing and compelling tributaries flowing into, through, and out of them — on the one hand, we have our author’s trip to Iceland, where she meets up with her friend, Hannah, who’s on her way to visit family in Europe ; on the other, we have her reflections on her now-concluded relationship with her last girlfriend. The two may seem incongruous at first glance, but as the comic progresses, we discover that they’re anything but.
Now, about those tributaries : Yanow’s post-mortem on her break-up deals, in minimalist but excruciating detail, with her own anxiety and how it hampers all aspects of her life — while said anxiety also comes into play in her observations about Iceland and the effects global warming, “eco”-tourism, and the influx of foreign capital and investment are having on this unique, yet far- less-remote-than-it-used-to-be, locale. But that’s really just the — shit, sorry for this, but — tip of the iceberg : Yanow’s memories of her father’s fatalistic attitude, her internal debate regarding whether or not she should spend a semi-sizable amount of money to see a glacier up close, her theorizing about if and/or when we may have passed the point of no return to do anything about climate change, her complicated relationship with the coping mechanisms she’s developed (some more successful than others) to deal with life’s stresses — these are all key issues she touches upon with an amazing amount of depth in the space of, in most cases, just a handful of panels.
And speaking of those panels : while they’re uniformly arranged in a rigid six-per-page grid, the fluid immediacy with which she delineates the scenes contained within their hand-drawn borders creates a wonderful natural tension between function and form that is felt from the outset even while its full effect takes a good few pages to sink in. In other words, this is cartooning that “hooks” readers well before they’ve fully figured out why.
In that respect, both audience and artist are of the same mindset — Yanow reveals herself to be a consummately introspective thinker, someone who questions just about everything about just about every subject. A scene wherein she gets sidelined from her task of making a salad to explore potential answers to the comic’s titular question drives this home with perhaps the most force, but she’s literally always obsessing over something, and invariably communicates those obsessions in such a way that you’ll be sharing them in no time yourself. Her progression from ruminating on various individual apocalpyses (is that a word?) to the literal end of the world, then, not only makes perfect sense, but presents itself as the inevitable “Point B” to the “Point A” she starts at.
All that being said, this isn’t an especially morose or gloomy work. Yanow certainly doesn’t seem to be an optimist by any stretch, but the way she thinks and feels her way through everything, and the acceptance with which she’s able to take on board the reality that she can’t have the answers to all her questions is, in its own way, at least slightly hopeful, simply because you get the sense that a compulsion (moreso than a love) to learn will always compel both her, and humanity, forward — for better or worse.
None of this goes very far in terms of alleviating the profound sense of grief and regret that Yanow feels about her past, both recent and (relatively speaking) distant, nor the intense loneliness she feels about her present — to say nothing of the foreboding she feels about the future — but she uses each to provide context for the others, and as a result transcends the merely confessional in favor of a far more brave, and honest, holistic viewpoint that’s as understandable as it is challenging, as sympathetic as it is alienating (and alienated), as clinical and distant as it is emotive and heart-rending. To simply call this comic “extraordinary” is, therefore, to sell it far too short — this is singularly unique and powerful storytelling that will stay with you forever.
What Is A Glacier? is something you need to own, and six dollars for work this compelling is an absolute bargain any way you slice it. You can — and should — order it directly from the publisher at http://retrofit.storenvy.com/collections/936408-retrofit-comics-print/products/19381849-what-is-a-glacier-by-sophie-yanow