Writer/Artist: Danica Novgorodoff
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: March 25, 2014
Based on the Chinese tradition of ghost marriage (tradition says an older brother must be married before his younger siblings, even if he has already passed away and his betrothed is also deceased), Danica Novgorodoff’s graphic novel is a hefty adventure. The Undertaking of Lily Chen revolves around Deshi Li, a boy searching for a bride for his recently-deceased brother so he can enjoy his afterlife with a significant other. Deshi speeds through the countryside with only a week to find an unmarried and (ideally) fresh body. A mercenary supplies him with one that’s rather dustier than he would prefer, at which point Deshi eyes one Lily Chen: a young woman still very much alive and kicking. Chen is what a charitable person would call “feisty” — rather than submit to Deshi’s plans, she promptly steals his mule and takes off for the big city.
Novgorodoff immerses herself in the book’s founding culture to the point of basing her drawing technique on traditional Chinese brush painting. When the landscape unfurls behind the characters and the texture of the watercolor paper shows through the washes of hue — especially in quieter moments — the pages can be beautiful. On the other hand, there’s a disconnect between the technique and the cartoonish appearance of the figures. You could argue that their grimaces, skinny appendages and exaggerated postures derive from Chinese comedy, but trying to mesh high drama and fart jokes doesn’t quite work.
The swift pace of the narrative makes all 430 pages fly by, but a lack of character development weakens the narrative. Lily is a delight when she’s in the story — irreverent and ambitious — but she disappears for large chunks of time. Deshi isn’t quite as three-dimensional or magnetic, yet he occupies more of the story. He’s defined against the others — by what he isn’t rather than what he is — leaving the story vacant at its core.
It may not be fair to compare The Undertaking of Lily Chen to Gene Luen Yang’s more polished Boxers and Saints (also published by First Second), but Yang’s best-of-the-year-ranking book feels more substantial in almost every way, right down to its ending. That said, there’s ample room in the market for innovative comics set in historical China, and Novgorodoff’s entry has plenty of appeal: a great production design, a new world to experience, a willingness to experiment (especially visually), a great color palette and the scope of a classic western set in the far east.