Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Ghosts. Written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Drama) with colors by Braden Lamb (Adventure Time, The Midas Flesh), this new graphic novel tells a moving all-ages tale by one of comics’ biggest names. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Raina Telgemeier is the reigning queen of comics. As of this week, her debut graphic novel, Smile, has spent 221 weeks on The New York Times’ Paperback Graphic Books bestsellers’ list, and it is often joined by Telgemeier’s other graphic novels: Sisters, Drama, and her adaptations of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club. Brian Hibbs’ Bookscan overview of 2015 comic sales revealed that Telgemeier’s books sold nearly a million copies combined, accounting for almost $11 million in sales. That number is only beaten by Robert Kirkman, who has the success of The Walking Dead TV show propelling sales, and Rachel Renée Russell, whose Dork Diaries series of children’s books include comic-book elements, but aren’t exclusively graphic novels, and come out far more frequently than Telgemeier’s titles.
This June’s Back Issues on Smile explored Telgemeier’s impact on the comics landscape and what her rise indicates about larger shifts in the industry, especially in regards to the next generation of readers. Telgemeier’s work is targeted at girls—an audience that has been largely ignored by mainstream comics—and she’s introduced the art form to new readers who are growing up and beginning to move into other areas of comics as both fans and creators. Telgemeier’s books continue to be bestsellers years after release because she’s become a go-to name for quality graphic novels that appeal to a wide age range, and Telgemeier’s newest release, Ghosts, is an outstanding showcase of her talent.
Telgemeier hasn’t sold books just because she’s telling stories about girls. She’s sold books because she’s a remarkable cartoonist who uses an engaging, animated art style to tell meaningful personal stories, and she explores complex emotional content in a way that is easily accessible to children. While still appropriate for kids, Ghosts explores darker territory than Telgemeier’s past work, telling a heart-wrenching story about mortality, death, and learning to enjoy life’s blessing instead of being defeated by its hardships.
Ghosts follows Catrina Allende-Delmar, a sixth-grader whose family moves from sunny Southern California to the cloudy northern town of Bahía De La Luna, which has a climate better suited to the health needs of Catrina’s younger sister with cystic fibrosis, Maya. They quickly learn from their neighbor, Carlos, that Bahía De La Luna is densely populated with ghosts, and these spirits take the plot in a more fantastic direction that is a change for Telgemeier, who has made a name for herself telling more grounded stories rooted in reality. That injection of fantasy serves a very important narrative purpose in Ghosts; the spirits are a basic metaphor for lost loved ones that is easy for young readers to interpret, and the supernatural moments create a contrast that gives the more realistic character drama even more gravitas.
There’s a lot of Telgemeier’s signature sweetness in Ghosts, but it’s tinged with gloom. This enters the story in the very first scene when Catrina and her family are driving to their new home: In a quick flashback, Catrina shouts “I’d rather die!” at the dinner table when learning they were moving to a place where the sun shines 62 days of the year, and the angered response from her parents and frightened look of her sister quickly establishes that death weighs heavily on this family. Maya’s condition is only going to get worse over time, and Ghosts primarily focuses on Catrina coming to terms with her sister’s mortality. Like Telgemeier’s other books, Ghosts deals with various aspects of coming of age, and in Catrina’s case, she matures by learning not to fear her sister’s inevitable fate.
Much of that learning process involves Catrina connecting with the traditions of her Mexican heritage, specifically those regarding the spirits of the dead. Ghosts is a sterling example of cultural appreciation, and Telgemeier treats these traditions with the utmost care and affection. The book’s climax occurs during Bahía De La Luna’s annual Día De Los Muertos celebration, and Telgemeier makes sure that her readers understand exactly what this holiday means to people with Mexican heritage and how it differs from Halloween. Catrina dresses as the Día De Los Muertos icon La Catrina when she goes trick-or-treating on Halloween, but she knows what her costume stands for and wears it to celebrate her culture. The detail and vitality of Telgemeier’s visuals during the town’s celebration showcase her dedication to capturing the joy and excitement shared by all the partygoers (both alive and dead), but she also includes a few moments of the somber reflection that is another major part of the holiday.
The Día De Los Muertos party is Catrina’s reward for overcoming her fear of Maya’s death, but it’s not an easy path getting there. Maya’s situation is already at the forefront of Catrina’s mind because of the move, and discovering the ghosts makes it even harder for her to push death from her mind. Catrina’s relationship to those ghosts represents her relationship to her sister’s fate, and she spends most of the book terrified of the spirits and their affinity for Maya. Catrina sees the ghosts as a malevolent force that wants to take her sister away, and while they do pose a threat to Maya (they like to share the breath of the living, which Maya’s lungs can’t handle), the ghosts don’t want to cause any intentional harm.
The clarity of Telgemeier’s visual storytelling is her greatest asset, and while she writes compelling scripts, the visuals are what pull the reader deep into the characters’ circumstances. In last week’s episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Barrie Hardymon specifically mentions Telgemeier when she talks about how the artwork in comics makes it easier for her young son to empathize with characters, and that’s exactly why more homes, schools, and libraries should embrace comics and graphic novels as tools to help young readers grow. Telgemeier’s work might be too challenging for very young readers to tackle on their own, but the content is appropriate for all-ages if parents want to read it to their kids.
Some parents may not want their children exposed to the homosexual content in Drama or Ghost’s focus on death, but Telgemeier deserves applause for exploring these themes in a way that children will be able to comprehend if they’re exposed to them. Children should learn about homosexuality and degenerative illness because those are things they might be dealing with themselves, and if they aren’t, they’ll probably meet others who are. Ghosts contains a lot of educational material, from the content about Mexican tradition to the details of Maya’s health regimen, which includes wearing a vibrating vest that loosens the mucus in her lungs and using a machine that feeds her nutrients through a port in her stomach. Telgemeier never shows Maya in distress when she’s getting her treatments, and her happiness emphasizes that this routine is for her benefit. Telgemeier brings a sense of normalcy to these moments, and that normalcy is there to remove the otherness that is often attached to those living with a disability or severe illness.
Telgemeier keeps growing with each new project, and the depth of her story for Ghosts is matched by the specificity of her artwork. The darker tone allows her to create more haunting visuals, and the sisters’ initial outing in Bahía De La Luna has a very ominous mood as the two girls make their way through empty gray streets. It’s creepy, but there’s also beauty in this place, best exemplified by a striking two-page spread of Catrina and Maya on a cliff overlooking the town. The coloring by Braden Lamb accentuates the spooky atmosphere of Bahía De La Luna with a dulled palette that reinforces the perpetually overcast weather, but he incorporates more vibrant shades when the story shifts in more positive directions, building to the explosion of color at the Día De Los Muertos celebration.
The setting of Bahía De La Luna and the Día De Los Muertos festivities present new design opportunities for Telgemeier, and it’s exciting to see her move outside of her comfort zone to tell a story with a different design aesthetic. She’s also making more dramatic choices in her composition to heighten the emotions of the script, particularly when it comes to Catrina’s terrified reaction to the ghosts. That first scene where she sees the ghosts is presented like a horror movie, beginning by showing the isolated Catrina from far away angles that make it looks like she’s being watched while also drawing attention to how alone she feels in those moments.
Telgemeier has impeccable craft, and Ghosts represents a significant step forward for her as a storyteller, delving into more challenging emotional material, achieving more diverse, thoughtful representation, and elevating her artwork to new expressive heights. It’s a serious tearjerker but also an inspiring, heartwarming story about the familial bonds that not even death can break, and Catrina’s journey is one that can be appreciated by anybody who has experienced loss in their lifetime.