Written by Paul Tobin
Art by Colleen Coover
112 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions
Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Banana Sunday comic from a few years ago was a great surprise, introducing me to Tobin’s writing (under the pen name Root Nibot) and showing me a different side to Coover from her adults-only Small Favors comic. The book was a great combination of funny, sweet, and clever, one of those rare books that was really meant for all ages. And while the pair have worked on quite a few comics since then (including a lot of short stories for various Marvel comics), the two creating a new graphic novel together is reason for celebration. Gingerbread Girl is a new direction for the duo, not quite like anything else they’ve created; more importantly, it’s probably their strongest collaboration to date.
Gingerbread Girl opens by introducing us to Annah Billips, a young woman who has two potential dates ahead of her, a love for being a tease, and a hatred for labels. She also has a twin sister, Ginger, who was created when Annah’s father pulled Annah’s homunculus out of her brain (the part which creates your sense of touch) and transformed it into a separate person. Or, alternately, it’s just a huge analogy for the heartbreak that Annah went through when her parents divorced. Or maybe it’s just a glitch in Annah’s mind, and she’s hallucinating the entire thing. Or maybe it’s just a lie?
Right from the start, Gingerbread Girl plays with the head of the reader, presenting a series of possibilities and then leading you down a twisting path to try and figure out which is the real answer. I’d say that Gingerbread Girl utilizes the literary technique of the unreliable narrator, but that’s not quite the case; instead it uses ten different unreliable narrators, each weighing in with their observations, facts, and theories about what’s really happening. But then again, the narration is one of the great strengths of Gingerbread Girl.
In this book, Tobin lets his characters switch back and forth between addressing one another, and turning to the reader and breaking the fourth wall. Each one of them has their own voice and perspective on what’s going on. So after Annah explains that she’s got both a boy and a girl coming over for a potential date (and she’ll leave with whomever arrives first), we then get girlfriend Chili’s feeling on the matter. To use a slightly tired metaphor, it’s number of puzzle pieces, and as each one clicks into place it lets the reader get a better grasp of the big picture. Just following Annah words would ultimately leave the you without a sense of what’s really happening, and the other narrators are an essential piece of the puzzle.
Of those narrators, it’s Chili whom I think gets the strongest voice in the book. Gingerbread Girl is ultimately all about Annah and the possibly-real Ginger, but it’s the little admissions from Chili that stuck with me the most. From her admitting that she changed her hairstyle to one that would turn Annah on, to holding up a previous panel of the comic and rolling her eyes, Chili is a fun and interesting character in her own right. But it’s her admission that sooner or later they’ll break up when Annah’s "crazy" gets in the way, her wondering if they’ll end up friends afterward, and how Annah’s marching like a tin soldier makes Chili’s heart skip a beat that gets me in the end. She’s the most together out of any of our numerous narrators, and it’s somewhat apt that she gets the final words in Gingerbread Girl. Tobin’s script created a memorable experience in the book overall, but it’s in Chili that he also ended up with a character that will stick with me.
Credit is also due to Coover, whose light and cheerful art carries the story forward. Her characters look great, with a soft but consistent line all around, cute little dots for eyes, and just a smattering of freckles on Annah’s face. When Annah conspiratorially tells the reader that she’ll go on a date with whomever shows up first, it could end up as a cruel and nasty sort of scene; instead, Coover’s art makes it seem almost playful with a big grin on Annah’s face as she holds up fingers to explain her statement. Coover does a great job with the storytelling, too; using symbols on occasion to bring across ideas in the text. And in the final scenes, as Chili reminds us what the most important facts of the entire story are, they’re illustrated with emotion and humor and love in such a way that it makes Chili and Annah feel like real people, not just comic book creations.
Gingerbread Girl is a blast of a story, one that is best told through the medium of comics. From references to earlier pages, to a scene illustrated as a cut-out paper doll (complete with outfits), to the occasional animal narrator, it’s hard to imagine this being tackled in any other format and working quite as well. I’m absolutely in love with Gingerbread Girl, and I’m already dying for another Tobin and Coover collaboration. Top Shelf is currently running the story on their site as a web comic as part of a lead-up to the May 2011 publication date; if you’re not convinced that this is fantastic (because it is), why not go and sample it for yourself? Gingerbread Girl is a joy and a half, from start to finish.