I’m late. It’s dark and one of the lights on my bike isn’t working and then I turn down the wrong street and finally walk into the comic book store and…it’s completely empty. There’s a very nice employee who says hi and so I, naturally, hide behind a stack of books and look up where I’m supposed to be on my phone.
Next door. I’m supposed to be next door.
So I frantically leave the store (“no, thanks I don’t need any help!”) and rush next door.
I enter into a small, packed room, dimly lit by some Christmas lights up at the front with an image of a radio screaming “hello” projected upon the wall. I’m at the Toronto release of the graphic novel Earthling. The image being projected is from the comic book. The book chronicles a 24-hour period in the lives of three women from a single family: two siblings and their single mother. Each struggles with challenges unique to their particular stages in life - puberty, finding a peer group, regret. The narrative is brought along by the youngest daughter who, at the beginning of the book, befriends a wayward alien. Through interactions and observations of this new friendship, we are given a window into the lives of the other women.
Franz is here to present her book and speak about her work with the evening’s host, Ginette Lapalme. She starts by projecting multiple images from the book onto the wall, accompanied by music. Franz tells us later that she has created the music in GarageBand, but in my notes I scrawl that it sounds like minimalist German techno. Regardless, by giving us simply images and music for the first ten minutes she allows us to interact with scenes from the book without direction or interpretation. This interaction is especially jarring because Franz projects images from the German-language version of the book, highlighting the art itself.
These images from the original German issue of Earthling and are immediately shocking to me. One of my favourite things about the book is how accessible and relatable the characters seem. Seeing the German dialogue forces me to recognize the characters were created in a different country. Rather than feeling disconnected from them, though, this realization actually makes me even more impressed with Franz’s ability to write a book whose themes feel so familiar. Even though it is set in Germany, I feel as if the women in Earthling could be my neighbours.
I feel vindicated in this odd duality of feeling connected to the characters and disconnected from their environment when Franz explains that the German title for the book - Alien - has a looser meaning than it would in English. In German, the word can mean extraterrestrials, but it also refers to someone who feels out of place. So while these women feel incredibly familiar to me, by forcing me to recognize them as existing in another country, Franz is also making me feel a little out of place, much like the characters feel throughout the course of the book.
Franz would define this effect as a “gimmick” - a way to hint at something without directly stating it. Gimmicks are used throughout Earthling and give the book a cheeky tone that lightens the otherwise heavy themes. One of these gimmicks is a camera the little girl uses to photograph the alien she has befriended, only to find out the camera is broken. Franz explains this gimmick is meant to keep the reader guessing whether the alien is real, and admits that she, even, isn’t sure if the alien was there.
This uncertainty adds yet another dimension of the book and seems to grow out of the organic way in which Franz creates. The author explains multiple times that when she wrote Earthling it started as a story of a young child but while she was writing it morphed into the narrative it is now, telling the story of three women in one family living a 24-hour period.
She remarks “in the end you start to see where it’s taking you” and this simple explanation of how the story evolved over time once again deepens the story of Earthling and creates three-dimensional personalities out of these characters on a page. The characters in the book already seem familiar, as if Franz has lived each character’s life already or, if you share their suburban experience, that you have. Because she “listened” to the characters in the creation process, it is not hard to understand how Franz made them seem so real.
Thus there are many facets of the book that hide underneath Franz’s deceptively simple art style. The book makes great use of this style, especially in what would traditionally be referred to as splash pages where there is only one or - in the case of Earthling - no image on a page. Franz uses these pages to once again hint at things that aren’t immediately obvious to the reader and truly make them shine. One great example of this is in the mother’s story. The mother is being haunted by an alternate version of herself. This alter ego has none of the mother’s regrets; she says “You! I’m the woman you didn’t become. I’m the famous novelist, the successful professor, independent, poplar, intellectual, and incredibly sexy, too!” After a full evening of being haunted by this perhaps-self, the mother stands in her empty room and over the course of a page gets more and more angry until - we turn the page - there is just blackness. Franz presents us a page of angry scribbles followed by an image of a broken plant on the next page. This type of blind rage would be impossible to convey in any other type of style and the emotion it creates is one of the reasons these characters are so relatable.
Franz tells us that her style emerged out of the impatience she feels when when she creates; even though she has a clear vision of the panel, she finds her style resists clean lines. Despite this impatience, Earthling is extraordinarily expressive. Lapalme at one points asks Franz about one particularly affecting scene in the book where the older sister is being groped by her date. Franz explains that she had to erase and draw the expression on the teenage girl’s face multiple times to make sure she captured the mixed feelings the character was having. The interviewer agreed, saying “I don’t even know what that expression is”.
Franz goes on to explain that in Earthling it was particularly challenging to show action in the book because there is so little dialogue and the main character mostly observes her surroundings. Despite this challenge, Earthling is an action-packed novel, which once again speaks to the incredible expression Franz can create through her passionate artistic style.
At the end of the night Franz shows us some upcoming projects. About her working style she explains that while working on Earthling - her first big work - she was in a constant state of nervousness. Now, there are more ups and downs. And then she says “That’s why my advice is to keep working, otherwise it’s like, what’s the point?” It’s a simple quote, but one that resonates. Keep working through the nervousness, let the story see where it’s taking you and you will end up somewhere great.
Franz says she deliberately kept the ending of Earthling vague - no one character completely resolves their challenges - but I find the ending hopeful in its complexity. I leave the event calmly, in stark opposition to my arrival, and on my way home hope to run into an alien of my own. Even if I do only have one bike light.