Borja González is a self-taught illustrator, and you both can and cannot tell while looking at his resplendent new work, A Gift for a Ghost (Abram ComicArts, 2020). You can't tell looking at the splendid artwork—so precise and so assured, dense with mood lighting and many a background flourish to admire—and you can tell in the way that only makes sense after learning the fact. The panels, and often the story, eschews the conventions of a graphic novel, if such things can be said to exist. Pages go by without any words. Scenes, just as much, stripped of consequence. The book instead shows a story—two stories, one in 1856 and one in 2016—held together by the phantom, fleeting forces of time.
González's illustrations are so endlessly lovely, and his characters so human, that there is a spell of universality cast among its negative spaces. A Gift for a Ghost's 114 pages, limned in the colour palette of its cover, are there for you to gape at; the little worlds each panel leaves behind, a time capsule. One can find traces of Love and Rockets, Daniel Clowes, and Charles Burns (the graphic novel was originally called The Black Holes), but the work is very much González's.
None of the characters are drawn with faces or fingers, and we never see the ends of their feet. Rather, they dissolve like stick figures into the ground, and the ground itself is often grassed or earthy. The central cast appear as extensions of nature, stretching onto, or growing out of, the forest floors they frequent. The more aristocratic sisters and mother of the 1856 protagonist wear long frocks that hide much of their selves away, and it is they who stick out sore in the confines of the graphic novel. Fundamentally a narrative of ill-fitting, the artwork very simply and very concisely informs us who belongs and who never will.
Not unlike the central Teresa of 1856, we have Laura, Gloria, and Cristina in 2016, a trio punk-band-in-training, who recall the Shaggs more than they do the Clash. We never see them truly interact with others, but it is very clear how poorly they fit in from a look into the posters that adorn their practice space. (It goes without saying that you should immediately read this book if you can't decide which Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the greatest film ever made.) Even among the misfits, it is Laura who is most alien. Body-conscious and with interests few share, Laura goes out every night in varying personas. "I'm coming from a costume party, okay?" she always informs, pre-emptive, even when no one asks or listens.
At some point untraceable, the lives of 2016 and 1856 intersect, and the disparate worlds strip away and commonalities emerge. The world we get really is just ours, save for a few twinkles of twilight that hang just below the cloudless skies. Even Magic Lake Ice Cream, the ice cream parlour they frequent by the side of the forest, glimmers under the nightlight, and promises to "never close."
A Gift for a Ghost's art is sheen and linocut-like; dark, foreboding, pretty, exciting. If you've heard of the term "visual poetry," this is what they've been referring to. This book is as poetic, as visual, and as beautiful as it can be, and within the first few pages it will enchant you for minutes, hours, and days.
Mehrul Bari S. Chowdhury is a writer, poet, and artist. His work has appeared in Cathartic Literary Magazine, Six Seasons Review, and Twist & Twain, among others.