In Molly Mendoza‘s dizzying and intoxicating debut graphic novel, Skip, a young boy named Bloom and an older woman named Bee live an apparently tranquil life on the water, separated from civilization and foraging out a life. Bee has to go away suddenly to help someone in danger and charges Bloom with caring for the lake by their home, but Bloom fumbles with a necklace that belongs to Bee and finds himself, as children so often do these kinds of stories, blundering into another world.
That other world is inhabited by several odd creatures, most importantly Gloopy who has been ostracized from their friends after setting in motion an accidental disaster in a moment of creativity. Gloopy is desperate to escape their troubles and Bloom only wants to go back home, so they find his entrance and promptly get lost.
Together they enter chaotic worlds, during which time we learn that Bloom’s own world isn’t so peaceful after all, even as the two struggle to survive the chaotic and absurd calamities they are being thrown into, featuring some strange beings that are far outside the zone of their experience and others that are closer than they imagine. This is particularly relevant in section of the adventure featuring the universe created by and inhabited by Lily, with whom Gloopy has a dialogue about the compulsion to create art and the resistance and derision one can face when trying to do so, as well as the challenge to look outside yourself in the face of that hostility.
It’s this presentation of creativity as sometimes alienating, as something that can separate you from a community rather than unite you, even if it is a community of creators, that sits at the heart of the adventure. Bloom tries to help Gloopy with this conundrum, but it circles back on itself and puts Gloopy in the position of taking the lessons of creative pursuit and applying them to Bloom’s desire to survive and get home. The solution to their problems might be more simple than expected, but that’s because while the action itself isn’t complicated, the journey to get to that place where you accept it as a solution and then the work you have to do to put it into action and keep it on track are much more demanding. Some of that is achieved through connection, some of it through self.
Mendoza’s story is as fun as it is insightful, and filled with bizarre puzzlements for the characters, and something about it had me thinking about The Phantom Tollbooth. But Skip is also amiable and gentle in a way that hearkens to the Moomins, and visual tone is as reminiscent of that Tove Jansson’s lovely work as the elements the narrative and characters. Mendoza’s artwork is a total revelation that does evoke Jansson’s color work, but also some of the best of the classic Golden Books, particularly Feodor Rojankovsky and Gustaf Tenggren, but with an painterly energy that inserts mad, intricate abstract imagery within the illustration that seems to channel Wassily Kandinsky with overwhelming bursts of color that brings a disorienting beauty to the worlds visited, and binds them through the consistency of the unreal renderings.
Mendoza’s graphic novel debut is going to make its first appearance this weekend at TCAF, and I’d urge anyone attending to seek out this exquisite book, especially if you have a kid that you’re buying for. This is challenging, for sure, but it meets a kid half-way and offers out a guiding hand for the stunning journey.