386 Pages, $24.95
Review by Corey Pentoney
Before I dig into this review, I want you to imagine what loss looks like. If you saw it on the face of a friend, would you recognize it? Are their eyebrows angled in a certain way, the corners of their lips turned down just so? Now separate that feeling from the person, from a human face. What does it look like? A swirling mass of black and dark colors? An empty beach? Take a minute and close your eyes and try to imagine what each and every emotion looks like—fear, hatred, love, happiness—when it’s not attached to a human being. Imagine the space it would fill.
In Dragon’s Breath, MariNaomi, the author and illustrator of Kiss and Tell (print), and Estrus Comics (online), as well as numerous short comics spread across the fathoms of the internet, tells the story of loss. The story is broken into many small vignettes, ranging from two or three pages to twenty or thirty, and all of these tiny events—the loss of her home, the loss of her grandfather, the loss of friends—are laid out in such a way that by the time you chew your way through the entire book, it will be hard not to feel in some way intimate with its author. You were there with her at the party with the members of Duran Duran; you screamed at her boyfriend when they didn’t get along; you stared at the bites from the bedbugs on your ankles and shins.
The real miracle of Dragon’s Breath is the power of MariNaomi’s visual storytelling. She illustrates each experience with deceptively simple, carefully chosen lines of black and white, and the space that lies in between. By nature, all graphic novelists must use illustration as part of the medium that becomes their story, but MariNaomi has a very specific and incredible knack for creating emotion through her unique combination of prose and space. One of my favorite essays, “What’s New, Pussycat?”, which tells the story of Herbert, a very kind man who wants more from MariNaomi than she is willing to give, is told with one illustration per page, and the simplest of these is just her character’s head, floating in the middle of a large white space, looking confounded and exasperated at Herb’s advances. This white space is echoed on every page of the essay, gathering around her and the reader like a heavy weight, the void of emotional space, just waiting to crash in.
That’s not to say that Dragon’s Breath is all doom and gloom. Far from it. There are moments of bubbling hilarity and voracious love. There is also an overwhelming undertone of hope, gained or sought, by the end.
Much like her artwork, MariNaomi’s prose is often minimal, but all the more poignant for it. She doesn’t waste a single word, a single sound effect; everything serves a purpose, drawing you deeper into her memory. Dragon’s Breath is a novel that you will find yourself unable to put down.
Go ahead: read it quickly. Devour the simple lines and the terse phrases as fast as you can, and when you get to the end, close the cover and close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Try to imagine all of those emotions—the fear, anger, love, loss, grief. Open the book and start again, right from the beginning, page one, and scour the crevices, look for every coy turn of the illustrator’s pen and see how full this book really is.
Corey Pentoney lives in the Deep North with his wife, hacking out a living in the dark forest of the local community college. He is the only person known to have survived an attack by the Great Horned Waffle.