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Isabel Greenberg:

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is sure to confound librarians. It’s not a learned encyclopedia at all, but a playful yet wise debut graphic novel, in which Isabel Greenberg rewrites humankind’s origins. In her appendices she claims to document an unrecorded period pre-dating the Permian and Mesozoic Eras, before the first reptiles, when our planet had three moons, and a civilisation of which no trace survives, except for some supposed ‘incredible subterranean cave paintings’. 

From cave art it’s a relatively short jump to comics art. Illustrated in woodcut-like black ink accented in grey and sporadic colours, Greenberg’s stories feel familiar but quirkily altered, because she builds them from her researches into legends, world religions and folklore. As she explains, “I liked how many of their themes were universal - competitive siblings, jealous lovers, childless parents, parentless children - and crop up over and over, because they are fundamentally human.” Her mother and sister are both historians - her mother is involved in the convincing but fictive Museum of Marco Polo - so it seems almost genetic for Greenberg to conceive another Earth parallel to our own.

Greenberg’s variations on the Old Testament, The Odyssey and mythologies subvert expectations and revel in the Storyteller spinning a good yarn, telling tales within tales, even if they sometimes may be his undoing. Her narrator is the first man from the North Pole to meet and fall in love with a woman from the South Pole, as he recounts in Greenberg’s four-page entry ‘Love In A Very Cold Climate’, which won the 2011 Observer/Cape/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize and is reprised here to open the book (detail below). As polar opposites, unable to touch, kept apart by magnetism, her pair of lovers connect by blowing each other kisses on pieces of paper or swapping sides of the bed to wrap themselves within the other’s body warmth. To pass the long Antarctic winter together, he tells her about his life and his quest for a tiny but vital missing piece of his soul which she has finally restored to him.

To puncture any pomposity, Greenberg interjects sudden modern phrases like ‘Brill’ or winking asides to readers. She shows how early Earth people are playthings of meddlesome Gods Bird Man and his son and daughter. They observe humans through “a big pool, but also use toilets and chamberpots as other little windows, like changing the channel on the telly. I thought if I were a God looking down on Earth, it would probably be like an ongoing soap opera!” Greenberg is watching and has a second part set in different lands already in the works. In the meantime, for ArtReview magazine she has created a two-page strips as an additional appendix, providing some clues to the mysterious ‘Quells’. To read this newly unearthed entry to her Encyclopedia, scroll to the end of this Article.

Isabel Greenberg is launching The Encyclopedia of Early Earth at Gosh! Comics, 1 Berwick Street, London W1F 0DR on Friday September 27th, 7-9pm (above), and I’ll be interviewing her with Gareth Brookes  on Monday October 7th at the Manchester Literature Festival.

Web Exclusive Mini-Interview:
Isabel Greenberg kindly answered a few of my questions:

Paul Gravett:
What are some of the timeless universal questions you want to speculate about through these stories?

Isabel Greenberg:
My stories are mostly about human relationships really. I think when I was reading and researching folk tales and religious stories, I liked how many of the themes and ideas were universal. Competitive siblings, jealous lovers, childless parents, parentless children, themes like this crop up over and over, because they are fundamentally human.  I like stories like that. And I think really I just like stories where Love Conquers All !

What were some of your visual inspirations outside of comics? Did you look at Scandinavian folk art? How have they influenced your image-making?

I looked a little at Scandinavian Folk art, but I am probably more influenced by Medieval Art, Islamic Miniatures, 19th century drawings done by explorers, illuminated manuscripts, antique encyclopaedias and old maps. I research quite widely and am always buying books!

Your stories have a ring of genuine myth, have you read and researched folk tales, and if so, what inspired you in them?

Yes, most of my stories are based on a folk or fairy tales in some way. There’s a few bible stories in there, and some creation myths, and a little bit of The Odyssey. I like how in The Odyssey and The Iliad the Gods are characters, and interfere and get involved in the lives of the human’s. I find it interesting that a lot of the stories cross over into different cultures and religions. You read the same themes and plots over and over in different guises, so i thought it was certainly allowed for me to put my stamp on them!

I enjoy the way you occasionally break the mythic style of narration by adding modern words like ‘handy’ or ‘brill’ or putting in little asides and comments to the reader. What appealed to you about doing this?

I didn’t want it to be too pompous, I wanted to keep it fresh and funny, so I instead of trying to be serious I just wrote what i was thinking, without added gravitas.

In preparing the world of Early Earth, what sort of unseen notes and sketches have you made to build up this world? Have you invented a real language, for example? Designed tools, clothes, tents?

There isn’t a real language, no. I have some runes that appear at certain points, but I’m afraid they are nonsense symbols. I’m no Tolkien! But I have drawn lots of maps and there is definitely a lot of the world that didn’t make it into the book. In the appendices section I put in a few of these extra bits, but there is certainly a lot more.

Why do the gods have lots of loos and chamber pots standing around when you first present them?

They use the loos and chamberpots to see what is going on down on Earth. There is the one big pool they look into, but I liked the idea of having other little windows, like changing the channel on the telly. Some chamberpots look down on different people and places. I thought if you were a God looking down on Earth it would probably be like an on going soap opera!

I also really like your restrained colouring - what was your thinking behind this?

I am simply not very good at colouring. When I try full colour it tends to look a little garish and added on. But I’m getting better. I’m working on a mini comic at the moment that will have a lot more colour in entitled Tall Tales and Outrageous Adventures-Part 1. It features two Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales back to back: The Snow Queen and The Emperor’s New Clothes (preview page below). It will be a series I’m hoping for two a year. The next book will feature different stories. I’m planning to launch it in time for Thought Bubble in Leeds. It will come out from Great Beast, Marc Ellerby and Adam Cadwell’s operation, helping artists professionally self-publish.

Do you plan a second volume of this Encyclopedia? And will we learn more about the Quells and the fate of all those vanished children?

Yes, I already have a second volume planned.  It will take place in Early Earth, but it is going to focus on a different land that you don’t hear about in Vol 1. You won’t meet the quells again though!

‘The Mysterious Quells’ for ArtReview Magazine
Click images to enlarge.

Posted: September 16, 2013

This Article was published in the October 2013 issue of ArtReview.


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Article Links

Isabel Greenberg’s site
Interview with Dan Berry
Interview with Digital Spy
Interview with Comics Bubble

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