Review: ‘Slow Storm’ by Danica Novgorodoff
By Danica Novgorodoff
First Second, September 2008, $19.95
This is Novgorodoff’s first full-length graphic novel; she was an Eisner nominee last year for the one-shot [[[A Late Freeze]]]. She’s got an assured, pseudo-outsider art style, with big blocks of color and slablike faces, but her writing isn’t quite up to the same level yet. [[[Slow Storm]]] will be in stores in September, but comics stores and online retailers are, as always, already taking pre-orders.
Ursa Crain is a firefighter in Kentucky’s rural Oldham County who has a very confrontational, unpleasant relationship with her brother and coworker, the very thuddingly named Grim. (What kind of family names their two kids Ursa and Grim, anyway? Did they know their kids would be characters in a story with heavy symbolism?) These two siblings clearly don’t get along, but we don’t know why – and their sniping and digs don’t give us much of a clue. Grim also complains that his sister “looks like a moose,” as if he wants her to increase her sexual attractiveness – which doesn’t sound like any brother-sister relationship I know. (Particularly since the other firefighters – the ones not related to her – are already sexually harassing Ursa in their mild, Southern, good-ol-boy way.)
Rafael Jose Herrera Sifuentes (Rafi) is a stableboy from Mexico, living in Kentucky illegally upstairs in the stable where he works. He comes from horse country himself, but he could only live hand-to-mouth there, and so he got himself smuggled into the US to be able to send money back to his family. He had the usual bad experiences on the way – robbed by the coyotes taking him over the border, shot at by a racist rancher – and somehow settled into this Kentucky stable.
They meet when lightning sparks a fire in Rafi’s stables the day after the Kentucky Derby. (From the publisher’s letter, it’s apparent that this last fact is important to Novgorodoff, but it doesn’t actually affect the story, or have anything to do with it.) Rafi tries to free the horses from the spreading blaze, but he’s knocked out by a falling beam. Ursa’s rig is one of those responding, but a sexist comment by her fellow firefighter Alva leads Ursa to do something horrible to her brother in the middle of the burning stable.
(And that doesn’t make much sense, but it’s of a piece with Ursa’s character: she’s murky and hard to understand, prone to saying things like “Take it easy, Grim; we oughta appreciate nature, the matronly bosom of all living things” only because Novgorodoff couldn’t figure out a way to turn that into narration. She doesn’t talk like a firefighter, or like a woman used to working around men. The men, mostly Grim and Alva, do react to her speeches as you’d expect, but I get the feeling Novgorodoff wants the reader to identify with Ursa, who is at the very least in the wrong job with the wrong people and doesn’t seem to know it.)
After a lot of flashbacks and portentous events involving the huge, hairy San Cristobal – a Hagrid-esque figure who travels with Rafi, at least in his mind, at least some of the time – we finally get to that fire, and Ursa’s team puts it out. She’s left to watch the embers, and she finds an amazingly untouched Rafi crawling out of the ruins once he wakes up. (Rafi is incredibly durable; he’s picked up by a tornado and tossed at least fifty feet into a building on page five without any ill effects. Perhaps he’s have better luck in the kind of comic where he could wear tights?)
The rest of the story is one part odd-couple and one part thriller, as the police want to talk to Rafi about the fire. (His boss has immediately assumed that he set it, even though that makes no sense, and everyone but Ursa goes along with that, since they’re racist NPCs.) Ursa and Rafi talk about their lives – they don’t compare brothers, which seemed obvious but never quite happens – and she doesn’t turn him in to the police.
Slow Storm stops rather than really ends; it’s a book of theme and character rather than story, so it doesn’t try to tie up Ursa and Rafi’s stories neatly. Unfortunately, the theme is muddy and the characters not entirely consistent – Rafi comes across well, even in his broken Spanglish, but Ursa’s character needed more background (or more thought) to really make sense. Slow Storm has all the hallmarks of a story that didn’t entirely make it onto the page; I’m sure this story worked well and was a thing of beauty in Novgorodoff’s head, but it’s just not all there between these covers.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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