To start, this book is beautiful. The first thing you notice when you heft it up (it’s just about as tall as my forearm) is the quality of production: the solid feel, the thick pages, the bold rendering of the lines and colors. Initially its size and luxury make it seem like a coffee table book, something to show off to company. But the story within is far too complex and satisfying to simply flip through.
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is an impressive debut for creator Isabel Greenberg. In 2011, she won the Observer Jonathan Cape Graphic Short Story Prize for her piece, “Love In A Very Cold Climate,” which provided the seed for Encyclopedia. (Don’t look it up yet! It’s only four pages, but it’s the four pages of emotional payoff in the longer book.) From that piece, which tells the love story between a Nord man and a South Pole woman, Greenberg expanded their shared universe to tell the story of how the Nord man journeyed all the way across the planet to find his soul mate.
Early Earth, the world in which these characters live, is the Earth that existed before our own, chock full of its own myths, gods, and histories, which we learn through the Odysseus-like travels of our protagonist. Only instead of a journey home from war, he is on a search for the small part of his soul that was lost as child. He sets out from Nord and heads south, landing in various new lands along the way, learning their stories and telling his own as only the clan Storyteller can. In this way, our Nord man, the greatest traveler of Early Earth and the first chronicler of its many myths, does indeed create an encyclopedia for the world. Ultimately, the book evolves into an examination of the nature of narratives and culture, bookended by the initial love story.
Readers will notice some familiar threads among the myths, such as a great world-clearing flood or a whale that swallows up our protagonist. But many elements are unique, such as the capricious and vain god BirdMan and his humanoid children, or the granny who fells a giant with just her wit and some sausages. Scattered throughout is enough sass and irreverence to make the book seem less, well, encyclopedic, and more like a good friend telling recounting a tale over the fire.
And while Greenberg’s writing is excellent and carries the story to its cathartic conclusion, it is her art that really makes the book. Kate Beaton said the story was “housed neatly by tight drawings in a style that is bright enough to bring these worlds to life, and detached enough to feel a little otherworldly,” which is true and also quite fitting, since I would readily compare Greenberg’s art style with Beaton’s. Strong lines combine with bright color accents to make the scenes pop, and truly lovely watercolor-esque backgrounds evoke the chill of the landscape. Human emotion is captured just as effortlessly as the beauty and terror of the world’s genesis. Greenberg succeeds in creating an Early Earth that is vivid and captivating, and a world which is a pleasure to return to time and again.
Publisher: Little Brown
Pub date: December 3, 2013
Author: Isabel Greenberg
Review by Arielle Yarwood