Lighter Than My Shadow
I don’t remember where I heard about this graphic novel last year, but it sounded good enough that I imported a copy from the UK, where it was published by Jonathan Cape. (It’s in good company — they published Posy Simmonds and one of the best graphic novels of 2012.)
Now, Soft Skull Press is bringing it to the US. (My comments are based on the UK edition.)
Lighter Than My Shadow is Katie Green’s story of her life with anorexia. As a kid, she had the typical struggles with her family over finishing dinner and changing tastes. She was an artist from a young age, spending time alone in her imagination. Sometimes the things she found scared her, and she sought order and rules and rituals as a way to control her world.
Her happy childhood was disrupted by oncoming puberty. Her best friend was growing up faster than Katie was, which drove them apart. Then there were bullying boys at school, where Katie’s achievement singled her out for more negative attention. Even her friends were catty to her about her lack of interest in the opposite sex. It all added up to a recipe for seeking ever more control over the one thing in her life she can control absolutely: what she eats. At first, her discipline, giving up junk food to start, made her feel healthy, but it soon came to consume her.
Lighter Than My Shadow has a very different look from most graphic novels, as you can see at the book’s website. Her figures are simple, dot-eyed stand-ins that resemble toys, but they have an impressive sense of motion and emotion. The poses are realistic and well-observed.
Most of the book is printed on grey or sepia paper, giving the whole thing a gloomy overtone that suits the material and focuses attention on the central figures. There are no gutters, and the borders between panels resemble torn paper edges. The despair that overtakes Green is shown as a black scribble, a simple but potent device that can be used as an overhanging cloud or a looming threat. Later on, she draws herself with a yawning open mouth in her midsection, the perfect image for how thinking about food and eating begins to define her.
Green’s portrayal of her life is very approachable, which makes her gradual slide into disorder all the more understandable. Her depiction of her mental state, of how all this made sense to her and even how some attempts at recovery were just more ways of trying to be good, is incredibly truthful. The straightforward art makes this readable by even those not used to comics. I hope this book reaches outside the usual graphic novel readers, because its message of Katie’s journey could help a lot of girls and women realize they’re not alone in their concerns and mental struggles. Anorexics sometimes feel as though they want to erase themselves, and the comic format is a perfect venue to illustrate that literally and symbolically. Her desire to make art infers her well-chosen images, using the visuals to represent her internal state of mind. Compare, also, Look Straight Ahead; both graphic novels brilliantly use the visual/verbal blend of comics to convey mental states that otherwise would be hard to describe.