An Elegy for Amelia Johnson

It’s an immediately gripping premise that plays out as expected, but still worth reading for its character portraits. Amelia Johnson knows she’s dying of cancer, so she’s summoned her two best friends to the hospital with a last request.

Jillian, a frustrated writer afraid she can’t live up to early success, and Henry, a stagnating, self-centered filmmaker, are asked to travel the country delivering goodbye messages from the poet Amelia to those close to her. Both aren’t very good with people; Henry puts on a bravado to cover his unwillingness to deal with true feelings, while Jillian is prickly and blunt.

As they travel, they get to know each other, revealing Amelia’s true goal to the reader. Their mission brings them together, as well as rejuvenating the way they look at art. Among those they visit are an old boss, who arranges a poetry slam in Amelia’s memory; ex-boyfriends from various periods of her life, many of whom know secrets; and some estranged family members.

Amelia’s made videos, and as her friends watch them, we learn more about the title character, who first seems a saint and then more of a person, with her own flaws and pain she’s caused others. She’s set up as a benevolent angel, and she is doing good, but her selfishness is part of the portrait as well.

Andrew Rostan is a new writer, with this being his first graphic novel, which means he doesn’t know yet what can’t or shouldn’t be done, how you’re supposed to tell stories. That’s an opening for some wonderful discoveries as well as a risk. His work here is dialogue-based and rewarding of attention. I looked forward to reading the book again (as I do when reviewing) so I could be sure I caught the details, firming up my understanding of the story the second time through.

One problem, though, is with the authenticity of the relationships. I don’t really get a strong sense of Henry and Jillian as people, instead of plot devices. They are moved through the expected first tentative moment of friendship, getting upset with each other, and so on, so their eventual scene together feels more mechanical than natural and essential.

The art’s a style I particularly like, with open, bold lines and strong focus on the key characters that anchor the panels. It’s got the grace of Cliff Chiang with the rough humor of Matthew Loux (without the extreme stylization). Unfortunately, the art falls down during at least one key moment, when Henry and Jillian first visit Amelia’s home. As Henry says, “It’s a drawing room like those old 30s movies,” what we see resembles a suburban living room, with sofa and coffee table. I admit, it’s a difficult request, referencing something many readers won’t be familiar with. I only picked up on it because of the number of those “old 30s movies” (redundant description) I’ve enjoyed. A sense of place is difficult to capture, and the real meat of the book, the cast interaction, is solid enough to make up for it.

Even with the elements I point out as areas of possible improvement, this is an admirable book, especially for a young creator. I read graphic novels to see these kinds of unusual stories, and the core messages — about enjoying the time you have and living without fear and recognizing the importance of faith and love — are always welcome reminders.

You can read the book’s opening online, followed by this set of preview pages. There’s also an online interview with the creators. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

2 Responses to “An Elegy for Amelia Johnson”

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