Jinchalo (Drawn & Quarterly)/Unterzakhn (Schocken)

Young girls take centerstage in both of these tales, one a plucky young tomboy’s mostly dialogue-free trip through a world equal parts reality and fantasy, and the other following two friends growing up poor in early 20th century Manhattan.

 

Jinchalo (Drawn & Quarterly)
152 pgs., color; $19.95
(W / A: Matthew Forsythe)
 
Unterzakhn (Schocken)
208 pgs., B&W; 24.95
(W / A: Leela Corman)
 
According to the press notes, Jinchalo means "Really?" in Korean, and that’s as good an introduction as any to this charming, almost-wordless graphic novel by Montreal cartoonist Matthew Forsythe, because on more or less every page something happens that will make you say to yourself "Really? Did that just happen?" The star of Jinchalo is a plucky little girl who’s made up of snips and snails and puppy dog tails far more than she is of sugar and spice and everything nice. Not that she’s mean or nasty, just mischievous and scattered in the way kids can be, and always up for an adventure. She has plenty of adventures in this book, because she’s young enough to be living in a world where there’s not always a clear line between fantasy and reality; her world is filled with gigantic hummingbirds, ambulatory skulls, furry headless monsters, and sushi rolls bigger than your head.
 
The art is what sold me on Jinchalo—there’s not much story, and almost no dialogue, but every page is filled with visual invention. Forsythe has a distinctive style—deceptively simple ink drawings highlighted with green-gray wash, with lots of white space all around—and it serves the story, or rather the lack of story, well. It seems to me that this book would particularly appeal to young children, who could jump right into Forsythe’s world, rather than (like us adults) always thinking things through first.
 
This seems to be my week for graphic novels with foreign titles, because Unterzakhn is Yiddish for "underthings" (a particularly appropriate term in the days when women’s underwear was considerably more substantial than it is today). Unterzakhn tells the story of two girls, Esther and Fanya, growing up on the lowest East Side of New York City early in the 20th century. They’re poor, but not dirt poor, and their lives are constrained at least as much by their mother’s attitude as by their material circumstances. No need for her daughters to go to school, she informs Bronia, the neighborhood "lady doctor," because "they don’t need to read the goyim‘s books. They’ll have families to provide for."
 
If Esther and Fanya’s opportunities for formal education are limited, they take full advantage of what there is to be learned in the teeming streets of lower Manhattan. This is not a story for kids—the first episode involves an abortion gone bad, and the book is not bathed in the kind of nostalgic amnesia typical that would take away its edge—but for high school students and adults, it offers a fascinating look at a formative period in American history, from a female point of view. Esther gets a job running errands at the local burlesque house/brothel, while Fanya receives a part-time education in feminism along with basic literacy from Bronia (the rest of the time, she’s working in her mother’s store).
 
I’m not a huge fan of Leela Corman’s art—it’s all about emotional expression, and the parade of grotesques becomes fatiguing before long. I will give her this, however: her style is appropriate to the characters and their story, because these are people living right on the brink, without the luxury of pretending that life is always beautiful.
 
You can see a preview of Jinchalo here http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=37024 and a preview of Unterzakhn here http://forward.com/unterzakhn/. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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