Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Talking to Strangers
Written by Fehed Said; Illustrated by Nana Li, Wing Yun Man, Faye Yong, Chloe Citrine, and Sonia Leong
The cover to Talking to Strangers shows a young girl with a Band-Aid on her cheek. She’s in a downtown area of a large city, but there’s no one around. Her expression is very passive. It’s so wounded that it’s not even sad; it’s lifeless. But she’s leaning forward at you and her hand is pulling back the headphones she’s wearing so that she can hear what you have to say. It’s a beautiful, haunting image.
There’s this theme that keeps coming up in movies and books that I’m experiencing lately. It was in Up in the Air and in a Jeff Daniels/Lauren Graham film I just watched from last year called The Answer Man. It’s an especially powerful message in these days of easy, long-distance communication. It’s about how we’re meant to connect with people. Not just to talk to them, but to share with them and laugh with them and cry with them. To reach out to those around us and help; not just with a charitable donation sent by couple of mouse-clicks, but with our hands and feet and hearts. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a message I need to hear a lot and I love it when it’s delivered with enough power to push through my complacency.
Fehed Said introduces his anthology with a story about how reaching out and talking to strangers literally saved his life. The book itself is a collection of six stories, all written by Said, illustrated by various artists, and dealing with this theme.
How it does after the break.
Most of the stories do this very well and a couple of them do it brilliantly. “Static,” illustrated by Wing Yun Man and Faye Yong is about a fellow with agoraphobia. He keeps himself shut in his apartment, has food delivered to him, and has only TV characters for company. But when the TV goes out, the oppressive isolation gets to him and he starts watching a young couple who eat lunch every day in the park outside his building. That small step reconnects him to the world outside. How successfully it does so – and what happens when the couple’s drama threatens his new “show” – is something you’ll want to discover for yourself.
“Box” is another excellent one. Illustrated by Nana Li, it’s about a young girl trapped in a box. She thinks she’s completely isolated until she realizes that her tiny prison is connected with another in which a boy is also trapped. At the risk of spoiling something I’ll say this isn’t a serial killer story like I first thought. The boxes are metaphorical for something a lot more commonplace, but no less heart-wrenching. These are people desperate – but physically unable – to connect.
Not all of the stories work as well. “Malignant,” illustrated by Chloe Citrine, takes a symbolic approach that’s a bit heavy-handed. “There once was a boy,” it tells us, “carrying the weight of the world on his shoulder.” And sure enough, there’s a boy chained to a boulder that he drags through a surreal landscape until we find out in a similarly unsubtle way what happens to people who are buried beneath their own problems.
“Hero” is better, but still failed to grab me the way most of the other stories did. Unlike “Malignant” though, “Hero” fails primarily on a visual level. In “Malignant,” Citrine’s bizarre world of boulders, castles, and chains was effectively creepy. It was the obviousness of the imagery that I didn’t like. In “Hero,” the story is good, but Sonia Leong’s art doesn’t do it justice.
I actually do like Leong’s style. It’s manga-influenced – as is the rest of the art in the book – and very expressive. She captures nicely the scarred beauty of the main character, an abused child. But the other characters are similarly beautiful where something darker is needed. The child-beating father should look more sinister than a douchey frat boy. Similarly, the hooded figure who haunts the family – comforting the boy while threatening the father – ought to look more dangerous and powerful than an average teenager. It’s not bad art; it’s just wrong for the story.
“The Old Man” is the shortest story of the book and another of the weaker entries because it’s forced and a bit preachy. It’s about the international birthday celebration of the oldest man on earth. The question on everyone’s lips though isn’t the secret to the 150-year-old’s longevity, but – oddly enough – what country he’s from. That’s a weird question to be on the top of every reporter’s list, right? And the only reason it’s so important to these reporters is so the old man can respond by telling them that he’s a citizen of the world. It’s a good message and he tells a nice story – effectively illustrated by Faye Yong, especially that last splash page – but it’s too bad that the set up is so awkward.
Back to the great stories though, I’ve saved talking about the best for last. Seriously, I’d pay thirteen bucks just to have this one on my bookshelf to go back and revisit every now and then. It’s “Flowers,” also illustrated by Faye Yong. In it, a couple of orphans – a young man and his small sister – live in a future where flowers no longer grow. Or so everyone thinks. When the girl finds a patch of wild flowers growing in the courtyard of an abandoned building, her first instinct is to keep the information to herself, but that nearly leads to disaster and she learns to share. Not in a moralizing, children’s book kind of way, but in a subtle, grown-up, look-how-fulfilling-this-is way.
Like the other stories in Talking to Strangers, “Flowers” encourages readers to reach out to people. To share with them the things that make us happy. Or sad. To see beyond ourselves and look out for each other. Some of the stories do it better than others, but they all deliver the same message and – as a group – they do it powerfully. Don’t be scared, they say. Take a chance. Talk to strangers. It just might save your life.