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Cyclopedia Exotica uses ancient myth to address modern prejudice

Aminder Dhaliwal's bold new graphic novel plays with the medium in intriguing ways
<i>Cyclopedia Exotica</i> uses ancient myth to address modern prejudice
Image: Drawn & Quarterly
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Learning about people and cultures through an encyclopedia is an easy way to gain basic knowledge, but rarely does it provide the emotional hook that leads to genuine appreciation. Encyclopedias don’t invite you into the lives of their subjects, instead maintaining an objective remove that files away the specifics of everyday experiences. Cartoonist Aminder Dhaliwal addresses these limitations in Cyclopedia Exotica (Drawn & Quarterly), a new graphic novel about the cyclops experience, imagining the mythological beings in the contemporary context of an underrepresented community. Cyclopes struggle with identity issues in a society that expects them to look and act a specific way, resent corporations that pander to them without actually supporting them, and yearn to see better representations of themselves in the media, where they’ve been tokenized and fetishized for too long.

Cyclopedia Exotica begins as a typical illustrated encyclopedia, featuring colors by Nikolas Ilic, with chunks of text explaining where cyclopes came from, their anatomy, the historical violence against them, and how they’ve integrated into “Two-Eyed” areas over time. The world-building is interesting, but the execution is intentionally bland and straightforward—until Etna, the first cyclops sex symbol in this world, emerges from the page and tells the reader, “There’s a better way to ‘study’ us.” From there, the book shifts into a format similar to Dhaliwal’s superb Woman World (currently in development as an animated series for Freeform), with short, black-and-white strips that spotlight specific characters to reveal “an entire personality and personal history no encyclopedia could ever capture.”

The hit rate for jokes isn’t as high as Woman World, and Dhaliwal returns too often to a joke structure where someone misinterprets a simple question and overshares their deepest feelings. But Cyclopedia Exotica has a stronger narrative through line with distinct emotional arcs for the cast, building to some beautiful moments of catharsis. Bron is a particularly compelling character, having undergone an experimental treatment that gave him two eyes before one of them decayed, leaving him an outsider in both worlds. Some of the most powerful images in the book are full-page illustrations of Bron’s dreams, like the one where he’s getting sucked into the pupil of a giant eye, pulling at the edge of the cornea to escape the black hole.

Dhaliwal has grown as a visual storyteller in the last few years, and the opening sequence does some very cool things with the form as Etna literally emerges from her encyclopedia entry, pulling the white space around her like a bed sheet and warping the words on the page. Later on, she includes an entire children’s book about a young cyclops, showing off her versatility as a writer and illustrator. There are a lot of clever lettering touches, like twirling word balloon tails that evoke mental gears turning before someone speaks, and smudged ink when characters are drunk. And in typical D&Q fashion, there’s a surprising production design element of the printed edition: The eyeball on the cover wraps around the fore-edge of the book, creating a rotating view from front to back.

Cyclopedia Exotica ends with an appendix in which Dhaliwal breaks down her intentions behind each character, illuminating the book’s key themes. It also reinforces how well Dhaliwal tackles the complicated subject matter with empathy and humor, offering ample social critique while keeping the focus on how these characters connect with each other—and learn how to love themselves.