Why you should care
Because what else is there besides love, death, beauty and jokes?
The Undertaking of Lily Chen starts with fratricide. Ghosts, hit men and grave robbers float through it. For most of the book, one protagonist plots to kill the other. And its resolution comes only when children flee the parents who supposedly love them.
For every tear and shiver, there are about a hundred laugh lines.
Yes, Danica Novgorodoff’s new graphic novel is deathful and dark: It taps some very primal fears about love, family and the obligations that come with them. One might expect as much from a work inspired by the ancient Chinese custom of ghost marriages. As the epigraph explains, “Sometimes, when a man died unmarried, his parents would procure the body of a woman, hold a wedding, and bury the couple together.”
But for all the shivers and tears, The Undertaking of Lily Chen (First Second, $29.99) contains about a hundred laugh lines. The wordplay is exuberant, and the story itself is a page-turner: Will Deshi kill Lily as they trek across northwest China, or will they fall in love, or both, or neither? And yet, you’ll want to linger over the panels, which are drawn in a style that combines otherworldly watercolor with manga-influenced caricature. It’s vivid and utterly its own.
“When my publisher first wrote the flap copy that goes on Amazon, it sounded like the most depressing story ever,” says Novgorodoff. “I said, ‘No — that’s not the point of the story. This is a love story, and a funny story.’”
I first saw the panels a couple of years ago, when I met Novgorodoff at an artists’ colony. By then, she’d been working on The Undertaking for four years, usually while holding down another job — graphic design, freelance illustration, teaching art to kids — because graphic novels don’t always pay the bills.
She came up with the idea in 2007, after reading an article in the Economist about ghost brides. (Its subtitle: “A lucrative, grisly market for grave robbers and murderers.”) Novgorodoff had just returned from her first trip to China — her father was born in Shanghai — and was immediately taken with ghost marriages’ “weird contrast of the death element plus the love element,” she says.
It combines ethereal landscapes and sharp characters…
She spun out the macabre tale over a two-year script writing process. “It became sort of an epic, because the characters were going on a journey, and they kept meeting people who kept coming into the script,” says Novgorodoff. She also visited China again — this time the north and the west — to get visual purchase on the landscape. Although Novgorodoff never met people involved in the ghost-marriage market, the visit was crucial: ”I really need to see a place and see the things I’m writing about and drawing,” she says. “I don’t like making things up much, because the world is more interesting than I might guess it is.”
Then came the long, arduous process of making the book’s 432 pages. Each required nine to 12 hours to sketch, pencil in, ink, letter, watercolor, scan, and then add more color in Photoshop. The care shows. The panels are little works unto themselves, some of them achingly beautiful.
The juxtaposition of watercolor and thick-lined caricature is a nice trick. It allows Novgorodoff to combine ethereal landscapes and sharp characters, my favorite of whom is the saucy, salty Lily Chen. She’s indomitable.
“You people and your superstitious bullshit,” Lily says toward the end, pronouncing the great lesson of the book: “You think a dead man cares whether he’s buried in silk or a sack? You gotta love what remains, not what’s gone.”