The seemingly simplistic artwork and meet-cute beginning might scare off some readers of Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclopedia Of Early Earth. That’s all the worse for them; this little gem of a graphic novel is well worth the twee beginning. Part storybook, part allegory, part meditation on the need for mankind to tell stories, the book manages to encompass all of existence without ever feeling too big for its britches. Never has a story about the primordial world felt so cozy.
More of a collection of short stories than a novel in its own right, The Encyclopedia is framed by a tale of (somewhat) forbidden love between a young storyteller from the north side of the Earth and a woman from the south. Unable to touch because of an obstinate god, the couple share stories from their own pasts, as well as those of various civilizations of Early Earth.
While some of the tales are original, most of the chapters are Greenberg’s retelling of myths from different cultures, slightly tweaked to fit in the book’s universe. Hearing Bible stories yet again might have been more clever than entertaining, but Greenberg injects enough wit and gentle mockery of her subjects (and her place of primacy as narrator) to make very old stories feel fresh. Part of this is acknowledging that these stories are told over and over again, and that this iteration is simply one of many.
Greenberg’s visual style underscores and cements the idea of the same stories told repeatedly over time. Clearly inspired by cave paintings and other early pictorial representations of the world, The Encyclopedia re-creates those universal symbols, using image to support the text’s assertion that all creation stories are bound up together. Likewise, the limited use of color suggests a universality of experience. This makes the book visually sparse (aside from several ingenious panels that represent maps), but that works in its favor. Greenberg aims to present a simple time, and crude renderings fit that setting more than elaborate visuals ever would.
While Greenberg beautifully realizes this long-forgotten world, she gives her heroes short shrift. Forbidden love is a trope as old as time, and the overarching plot never has enough time to breathe. The bittersweet ending still affects, but with a few more pages, Greenberg may have been able to turn her framing narrative into a real tearjerker.
Stemming from, and commenting on, primordial chaos, The Encyclopedia manages to create a messy world without being bogged down in it. It’s a short read—and one children can appreciate as well as adults—but the images stay long after the book has closed. What better proof of a story’s worth?