By Elizabeth Holleville
Translated by Amy Evans-Hill
Over the past decade or so, ghosts have really become a staple in comics aimed at girl readers of the middle school and high school demographic, appearing in books like Anya’s Ghost, Friends With Boys, even Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, among many others. In the works, ghosts appear as harbingers of a transformative moment in life, often that “coming of age” period, and serve to add some less down to earth mysteries to an uneasy process that is all too familiar to most of us.
In French cartoonist Elizabeth Holleville’s graphic novel debut Summer Spirit, the ghost story is used to the same purpose as ever, though also serves as a springboard to revelations about the past and offers a lesson in being careful what you wish for. As she does most summers, Louise, along with her sister Lydia, are brought to their grandmother’s house to spend some time there and meet-up with their cousins. The decay of age is starting to show in the grandmother as her memory keeps slipping, this amidst a house that is cluttered with reminders of the past that Louise is distracted by, even if she never quite knows the stories behind the photos she sees.
When the cousins arrive, it’s quickly clear that Louise is out of sync with the collection of teenage girls. While all the others are at the age where they want to ditch grandma’s house and get up to no good, which includes scoping out boys, Louise feels like an extra wheel, too young to indulge in the hijinks or even be very interested anyhow, and that distance is causing a further schism between her and her sister.
Soon enough, though, the answer to Louise’s lonely vacation comes in the form of a ghost haunting her grandmother’s gardens. As the bond grows between Louise and her new ghost friend, so do the revelations on Louise’s part about her friend’s motivations and past, about her sister and cousin’s bumpy transition through the teenage years, and about her grandmother’s actual childhood. Though she’s trapped in the garden, the ghost’s experience is expansive enough through time that she’s able to offer Louise tons of perspective that waver from being cruelly true to being simply jaded.
The appeal of ghosts in these stories is made plain in Summer Spirit. They can do pretty much anything and they use this ability to wield mischief on anyone and everyone, deserving or not. They are any young person’s perfect revenge fantasy role model, especially since their tricks are born from the same circumstance as the living kid in the stories — being forced to exist with limitations. But in this unleashed behavior there are also lessons and one of the horrible things about coming of age is that you exist in a netherworld where one moment you do stupid things and the next you gain knowledge. These collide against each and shake you into growth whether you want it or not, and the ghost becomes both the catalyst of it and the measure of how far you’ve moved on.
Holleville has an eye for the surroundings that Louise and her cousin and the ghost inhabit, building an often mysterious backdrop that begs the characters to delve further into it. In the house, the clutter is memorabilia and that attracts Louise’s eye, while her sister and cousins are more curious about a much different clutter — a human one that litters the beach and the town’s nightlife. The beach, the house, the garden, these are all locations that Holleville gives their own personalities, sometimes more solid than any of the girls, and so it should be, as slow-moving monuments that prefer an eternal present within which the girls swing through rapid pace.
Summer Spirit is two things at the same time — an acknowledgment of moving forward at a sometimes dizzying pace and an appreciation of how comforting slowness and even stasis can be amidst rapid change. Both are part of the human condition, especially during the transitory period of the teenage years, and that’s why after a lifetime of change, so many of us crave the engulfing comfort of an afterlife.