Cathy Malkasian’s Dreamy Eartha Fades Upon Waking

Comics Reviews Fantagraphics
Cathy Malkasian’s Dreamy Eartha Fades Upon Waking

Writer/Artist: Cathy Malkasian
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Release Date: April 2, 2017

Cathy Malkasian’s latest book, Eartha, is available digitally, but buying it via download would be a terrible mistake. The pages measure 10 by nearly 12 inches, and many of the panels are big, sometimes filling an entire page. There’s a sweep to the work that would be lost in a digital format, unless you’re managing to read it on a TV screen. Shrunk down, you wouldn’t see all of the cartoonist’s fine pencil lines, which give her work grace and depth. And you’d probably miss the full-page flow of the book’s narrative, which is strengthened by the occasional (slightly) violated panel.

Eartha Cover Art by Cathy Malkasian

Eartha is a fable about dreams, and the longer it goes on and the more it explains, the weaker it becomes. This is a shame. Malkasian creates beautiful and strange pictures, with her massive heroine (the titular Eartha) tiptoeing tentatively through fields and over bridges. Take out the strategically placed narration, and the book would still retain the same air of mystery it establishes early on. It begins in an agricultural setting, where Eartha rescues many tiny folks from a sudden flood of water that gushes from a large pipe; we can’t imagine where she comes from, what these people are farming and why her mother is getting plastered on fermented plums. It’s better that way.

Eartha Interior Art by Cathy Malkasian

Eartha and her people are on the lookout for dreams, which emerge through the dirt, sent from the big city across the water. The supply seems to have dried up, and no one’s been to the city (or even knows how to get there) in generations. Guided by a friend who knows she’ll blunder into the right decisions, Eartha sets out to solve the mystery, Joseph Campbell-style. She’s not that bright, but she’s big and good, the antithesis of the city folk who spend all their money and time on random pieces of news printed on biscuits. They’re deeply, performatively sad, and their busy-ness means they’ve forgotten how to dream. If this storyline seems a little cheesy, it’s hard to write about the power of dreaming without noodling off into mystical nonsense; the more you explain a dream, the less interesting it gets. (Unless you’re Freud.)

Eartha Interior Art by Cathy Malkasian

The plot eventually wraps in a neat package, every loose end tucked into a nice bow, and the result is…disappointing. The subtle color variations Malkasian uses to distinguish different environments are beautiful, and her character design is interesting. Eartha herself is lovely in her fatness. But the less words occupuy a page, the better it is. By the end, pages are crowded with word balloons that give the characters little room to breathe. Maybe this is the point, but it feels like a squandered opportunity.

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