by Audrey Niffenegger
Abrams ComicsArt, 80 pages
Reviewed by Amy Victoria Blakemore
At eighty pages, Audrey Niffenegger’s Raven Girl goes by quickly. We meet two improbable lovers, who have an improbable child, who finds love in her own (you guessed it) improbable way. Raven Girl is undoubtedly a fairy tale, cooked up with ingredients of the genre that readers will identify early on – anthropomorphized animals, an unexpected road to a relationship, a metamorphosis of the body, an enemy, etc. What is truly new about this work may not be immediately apparent, but once we notice it, we recognize Raven Girl as both delectable and honorable—a new (and necessary) twist on an old recipe.
With uncluttered, clean prose, and twenty-one well-selected drawings, Raven Girl is a humble work. White space cushions Niffenegger’s blocks of text on all sides, conveying the sensation that these pages are letters—perhaps even written by the Raven Girl herself, telling her story from a bird’s-eye view.
Whether or not the Raven Girl was Niffenegger’s intended narrator, our fairy tale guide unconsciously resists the “why” at all turns; whoever is recounting this tale lives inside, not outside, the world of the work. The narrator does not question: how can a raven and a human create a child? Is this our world or a different one completely? There is a no rabbit hole that we have to fall down to justify the strangeness of this world. Whoever writes to us in these uncomplicated (and often cheeky) letters does not waste any time holding our hand, guiding us through the rules and regulations of the moment. We just have to follow; we have to suspend belief for eighty pages. In this way, reading Raven Girl is a lot like falling in love: for a brief moment, we are compelled to forget our skepticism.
But Niffenegger’s resist-the-rabbit-hole tactic only partially constitutes the joy of her work. Readers may be caught off guard at the injection of plastic surgery into the storyline—a “modern magic of technology and medicine,” as Niffenegger explains in her epilogue. Spells assume the form of manipulated stem cells, neurons, the addendum of wings. Magic is embedded inside the body, and the surgeon operates as a modern day medium come to siphon it out with scalpels instead of chants.
The presence of modern-day medicine alone, however, wouldn’t be enough to deem Raven Girl “new;” in fact, it would run the dangerous risk of reading as a cheap trick. Niffenegger likely anticipated this, and she deftly combats against it—using nothing less than the Raven Girl herself.
Just as many are able to swiftly identify qualities of the fairy tale, they also may feel confident in describing a typical female protagonist. She might be passive, smitten, forsaken, validated by the presence of a male savior, or all of the above. Her body, marked as “female,” might lead to her being bartered as a marriage chip or bearer of children.
In Raven Girl, however, the girl herself is different, even in name. She is not “female” or “girl”: she is a hybrid. She occupies an ambiguous space between species and gender that may make some readers (productively) uncomfortable, for she is first a raven, and second a girl. Even more, this dual-identity does not stop at her name; it serves to structure the entire text. When the Raven Girl approaches the plastic surgeon, she does not ask for wings to impress those around her or to win a man’s affections. She is not the Little Mermaid who trades her voice for a chance at love. She wants wings to be more raven, not more girl. As Niffenegger’s haunting illustrations communicate, these wings are the primary object of her affections—despite the fact that she is being pursued by a suitor. She gazes through the glass at her soon-to-be limbs as if gazing at a lover, hands to her chest, her own face reflecting back in the glass. She is finally able to see herself.
Perhaps some readers will critique that the trope of sprouting wings and “soaring” is not new enough. How these wings are worn, and to what end, however, is as refreshing as Niffenegger’s witty prose and haunting artwork. If I had a daughter, I would hand her Raven Girl and tell her, “Read closely.” Here, we don’t have to fall down a rabbit hole for a girl to find empowerment. Here, she just has it, and best of all, we don’t feel the need to ask why. If we ask ourselves anything after reading Raven Girl, it is most likely: what do I lead with? What is my “Raven”? And how do I best help it flourish?
Amy Victoria Blakemore is a graduate of Franklin and Marshall College, where she served for three years as a writing tutor. She earned honors for her senior thesis on contemporary iterations of Superman in comics and graphic literature, and she also was awarded an Academy of American Poetry Prize. Her work appears in the The Kenyon Review, [PANK], and The Susquehanna Review.