One humid morning in the summer of 2011, I
was stuck in downtown Fort Worth waiting for the train to Oklahoma City.
That train, the heartland flyer, only runs twice a day, once from OKC to Fort Worth,
and once back, so if you don’t have a car and your friend can only make time to get
you there six hours before the train leaves, you need to find something to occupy your
time. So, I went to see Rise of the Planet of the
Apes, which I should still have the ticket stub for…
Okay, let’s see. No, no, no… Ah, here we go.
Huh, guess I liked it enough to see it a second time.
Anyway, I still had a few hours to kill after that, so I went into the big two-story Barnes
and Noble that isn’t there anymore to buy one book and a glorified vanilla milkshake
that is somehow socially acceptable to drink in a bookstore. Unfortunately for my wallet, I left that day
with two books. The first was A Game of Thrones by George
RR Martin. By this point the show was in the middle of
its second season and I wanted to see if the genuine article was as good as the adaptation.
I got maybe a hundred pages in before putting it on a shelf, where it sat for several years
before I hocked it at a used book store for a couple bucks, so… eh. The second book I got that day was a blind
buy, and unlike A Game of Thrones it’s a book I still own and return to frequently.
I’d never heard of it before it caught my eye in the graphic novel section, and I probably
would have ignored it entirely had it not been for Neil Gaiman’s endorsement on the
cover. When I saw the letters of his name out of
the corner of my eye, it immediately got my attention.
And there it was: Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol. Anya’s Ghost is a chapter in the life of Anya
Borzokovskaya, a teenage Russian immigrant whose single-mother moved her and her brother
to the states sometime in the last four years. Anya is keeping her head down, trying to fit
in, struggling against the expectations of her Russian roots in order to conform to the
American normal. Even still, she’s a loner and a bit of an
outcast, someone who looks at the popular kids with jealousy
-she seems to resent the fact that the only friends she attracts are the other weird ones,
like Siobahn, a punky Irish girl, or Dima, a fellow Russian emigre whose bookish nature
gets him picked on by his peers. One day while skipping class, Anya falls down
an abandoned well, where she finds a long-dead skeleton and its ghost, Emily Reilly, who
has been trapped in this pit since the early 1900’s.
She’s modest, humble, even a bit meek -as a ghost, she can only appear within a certain
proximity to her bones, but when Anya is rescued the next morning, she’s surprised to find
she must have accidentally swept Emily’s pinky bone into her bag, because now she has a one
hundred year old teenage ghost following her around.
What starts as an inconvenience turns into an advantage, as Emily helps Anya cheat on
tests, evade her teachers to smoke cigarettes, and even get into a party with the boy she
has a crush on. But, as you might expect, having a ghost friend
doesn’t come without its drawbacks, and it’s not long before wacky hijinks ensue!
Rat poison. At 221 pages, Anya’s Ghost is a fun little
coming of age comic that, for me at least, is endlessly re-readable. Like all good genre
stories, it uses its supernatural elements as a way of examining society.
But if it were just that, I doubt I’d be talking about it today. I’ve lost count of the number
of times I’ve read through this book, and coming back to it again, what strikes me the
most is just how much story data is packed into such a small space.
Most characters only appear for a few pages, but they’re all distinct and memorable because
each has a unique constellation of features. Anya is drawn with healthy curves and a round
face- her head tends to be an oblong circle, with big round eyes and thick black pupils.
Sean, the guy Anya has a crush on, is tall and lanky, his face a strong rectangle, eyes
black pupils and no outline except two thin lines by his nose.
Elizabeth, Sean’s girlfriend, looks like a character right out of a Bruce Timm cartoon,
with a waistline thinner than her head, and big angular eyes with grey…
One of Anya’s ongoing stressors is her fear of being or becoming overweight, like her
mother. But she isn’t drawn “fat,” to put it in a
crass way -instead, the tension here is conveyed through contrast.
Everything about Elizabeth is idealized, the girl most girls want to be -rightly or wrongly.
Compare this to Anya, whose features are more defined. She has freckles, she has circles
under her eyes. It’s interesting the details that Brosgol
chooses to emphasize. Elizabeth’s nose, for example, is a simple
angular swipe, where Anya’s nose is a more realistic series of curves.
For me, this makes Anya feel like less of a cartoon character by comparison -her relative
realism emphasizes what she feels like are her physical flaws, while all we see are the
seeming perfections of the people she wants to be. The Bruce Timm connection is interesting to
me, as Brosgol’s style generally takes a lot of hints from Timm’s work, but Timm tends
to create characters that look mostly the same in silhouette
-big broad-chested guys and thin ladies with a noticeable but not gratuitous bust.
You get a sense of the Justice League as a race of perfect anatomical beauties, while
their villains are squat and round or thin and wiry, their proximity to a quote unquote
normal body shape representative of how much we are meant to empathize with them.
Ah, Mr. Freeze, so compassionate, so tragic. UGH, the Penguin, he’s probably robbing an
orphanage as we speak! It seems pretty clear that Brosgol takes a
lot of inspiration from Timm’s style, but she moves toward something far more humanist
by deploying a wide variety of shapes in her character designs, thus challenging our assumption
that the abnormal is inherently evil or untrustworthy. This is why it’s so fitting that the only
pure Bruce Timm design in the book is Elizabeth, who is so focused on appearances that, when
we learn Sean sleeps with other women while she keeps watch, Elizabeth says,
“I’m the one he’s seen with. I’m the one people look at and know-
that’s his girlfriend!” And that leads us into the larger part of
why this book sticks with me, because wrapped up in this fairly standard coming of age tale
is a far more personally specific story about cultural assimilation.
Early in the comic, we see Anya secretly throw away the fatty egg dish prepared by her mother.
Later, a teacher struggles to pronounce her last name, which she simplifies to just “Brown.”
These are the first two facts that we learn about Anya, that she’s ashamed of being
Russian, and that she’s scared of gaining weight.
She just wants to be a quote unquote normal American, and doesn’t want to be associated
with others who haven’t put in the work to fit in.
“Well, times have changed, you act like a fobby creep, you get creamed.”
“Fobby?” “Fresh off the boat.” These days, the only path to survival is assimilation.
She worked to lose her accent, she smokes cigarettes to look cool, she does poorly in
classes because doing well gets you bullied- she does everything she can to blend in, to
seem normal. And all the while, Emily is watching and learning. Emily has been dead since the first world
war, and she claims to have been murdered by a migrant.
Over the course of the book we see Emily slowly adopt Anya’s budding cynicism, going from
sympathy for Dima to calling him “that awful little nerdy boy.”
She insists that Anya’s crush on Sean is, in fact, true love, and does everything in
her power to make sure they end up together. This leads to the aforementioned scene where
we learn about Sean’s proclivities, and Elizabeth’s silent, submissive attendance.
When Anya confronts her about this, the sum of her defense is simply,
“I love him!” Despite what she says, Elizabeth and Sean’s
relationship isn’t about love, it’s about image.
Sean is the popular sports guy, and Elizabeth is the beautiful girl that hangs on his arm.
It doesn’t matter that he cheats or that she’s unhappy, because this is the American ideal.
This is what “happiness” looks like, what you should aspire to, a surface beauty fit
for a car commercial. The substance is irrelevant, only the surface
counts. Don’t read the book, just judge the cover! While Anya realizes she doesn’t want anything
to do with Sean or this cult of surface image, Emily insists that Anya is being a hypocrite
and missing the perfect opportunity to get with Sean.
See, Emily died before she could become an adult, so she operates within the story as
an encapsulation of what the values of Sean and Elizabeth ultimately amount to.
Emily starts off seeming frumpy and understated, nice even- we’re conditioned to like her because
Anya treats her poorly at first. But as time goes on and Emily learns more
about the modern world, she starts internalizing America’s worship of surface beauty.
Because really, that’s all she has anymore. No substance, no family, only her appearance.
She makes her hair longer, she starts smoking ghost cigarettes, and when Anya starts to
realize how toxic her obsession with image is, Emily threatens to hurt Anya’s family.
Rat poison. We come to learn that Emily was not, in fact,
murdered by a migrant- instead, she was jealous that her quote unquote
true love was betrothed to another woman, so she trapped them in their home and burned
the house down. You know, like a well-adjusted, healthy human
being does? When confronted with an unfortunate fact?
Hurray. We learn this when Dima helps Anya search
through old newspapers on microfiche -a moment that shows the benefits of being
a bookworm- and Emily’s story is shown to us on black
pages made to look like newsprint. The only other time we get this dark background
is when Emily lies about her death. These pages are visible just from looking
at the outside of the book! They’re like a stain, a printing error cutting
into the perfection of the form -which probably isn’t relevant, it’s just
a fun little coincidence, a happy accident, you know,
like what happens in print books! Which are meticulously plotted and planned
beforehand. Where the author gets, like, a blank version
of the book to approve before it goes into publication?
Where they have to look at it and say “yes, that’s what I want.”
And they send it off to the publisher and then the publisher does it?
And then they do that for like three or four more times?
Yeah, it’s probably an accident. As far as Emily’s concerned, Anya’s internal
conflicts are immaterial -you can’t see them, you can’t touch them
up with a snappy belt or a revealing blouse, they’re just an obstacle in the way of Emily’s
vicarious second life. Threatening Anya’s family is a practical matter,
because all she has is want -want of beauty, want of love, want of all
the surface indicators of happiness. Nothing below that surface matters to her,
so she can’t understand why Anya can’t see the obvious social benefits of cultural assimilation. Anya escapes with Emily’s pinky bone and casts
it back into the pit where she died, in the hopes of putting the whole thing to rest.
But then, Emily’s skeletal remains crawl out of the hole in a menacing feat of power.
Anya starts to run, as she’s been running for the last few pages-
but then she stops, and Anya looks at Emily, and she says, “I know-
I know I said before I wasn’t like you… it’s not true.
I’m enough like you to know how you feel. Wanting how others look, what they have, who
they have! Everyone else’s life seems so much easier…
But that’s all you know! What you want!
You don’t know what’s going on inside anyone else’s head.
That girl you killed? How do you know she wasn’t more messed up
than you? Or that boy?
I know it sounds stupid, but you can’t know! You can’t judge them!
No one has the right to decide who gets to live or die.
Not even you. Look at you-
you’re barely standing. Why don’t you go?
What you want… what you want doesn’t even exist.” What you want doesn’t even exist. As a teen, I used to repeat this phrase in
the stories I wrote, which I probably stole from something better written:
“Look at them, living their lives like no one told them that relating to another person
is the hardest thing in the world.” As a closeted trans person, I struggled so
much with image in part because I didn’t even know who I was in this world.
It’s something I still struggle with, even as I approach the tender age of 30.
See, for all the complexity of our interior minds, all anyone else knows is what they
see, and they see so much.
Our brains are so overwhelmed with information that they have to sort it into invisible categories
based on wholly arbitrary features -oh, this guy has the face of the kid who
bullied me when i was nine, he must be a bastard. In this world, cultivated complexion is the
quickest way to communicate to another person who you are and what you believe.
Take me, for instance -I wear this hat because I’m ashamed of my balding head.
I chose this shirt because it shows that I’m loud about who I am, but not without a sense
of humor. And because I want to support Carta Monir,
the trans artist who designed it, which is also a signal of my attempted magnanimous
nature, and my alignment with a particular group of people.
All the stuff on these shelves back here? I spent like an hour arranging all this so
that it struck a balance between orderly sophistication, a wide array of tastes,
while also giving a bit of chaos to make it visually interesting. I
f this were just my private collection, I would never organize the shelf this way. This whole thing is a production, a falsified
image that I’m putting on for you, because there are things that I want you to
see, and there are things that I don’t want you
to see. Whatever authenticity I might convey in my
performance, this whole thing is scripted. This is all a production.
I’m trying to put on an image for you, in the same way that I try to put on an image
every day of my life. Point being, I’m an awkward, introverted person
who resents first impressions and icebreakers and having to make yourself look “respectable,”
but I still obsess over my image just as much as anyone else. And I think this is why Anya’s Ghost is one
of those coming-of-age stories that draws me back again and again.
Its lesson isn’t simply “learn to love yourself.” That’s every Saturday morning cartoon.
“Well kids, this week we learned a valuable lesson about the importance of being yourself.” “Shut up!” Like, it’s all well and good to say
“millennials are a bunch of self-obsessed murderers taking selfies and electing socialists,”
but that doesn’t change the fact that everyone everywhere cares on some level what other
people see of them when they are seen. No, the lesson of Anya’s Ghost is more along
the lines of, “learn to love your flaws, because, for all
the pain they may bring, they are tangible. And they are, ultimately, part of what makes
you special.” It’s a more complicated message, and one that’s
difficult to accept, because we’re rarely shown happy, successful
characters in media who are people of color, overweight, disabled, queer, or any mix of
the above. Especially in the trans community, there is
an obsession over perfecting one’s masculine or feminine image soas to “pass” in day to
day life -a practice that I can’t come down on too
hard because it’s often a matter of safety in today’s world.
But I know the hatred I feel when I look in the mirror and only see the dozens of little
imperfections that will always keep me from passing
-things that, barring a series of incredibly expensive and potentially dangerous surgeries,
I will never be able to change. What does that hatred accomplish?
Who does it help? All it did was keep me in the closet even
to myself, leading to years of depression and suicidal thoughts. The hardest thing for me to accept has been
that the person I wanted to look like, the person I punished myself for not being for
well over a decade… that person doesn’t exist.
And they never will. The title ‘Anya’s Ghost’ has, of course, a
literal meaning- Emily is the ghost following Anya.
But there’s more to it than that. The book isn’t called “Anya and the Ghost,”
it’s “Anya’s Ghost.” Possessive. In conversation, if you were to talk about
“grandma’s ghost,” most likely you’d be referring to the ghost of your grandma,
not a ghost your grandma owned. So, why this title? Anya’s ghost isn’t just a literal ghost
-it’s a sort of phantom mold, a nonphysical identity that she’s constructed in her mind
as an ideal she aspires to. What frightens Anya isn’t just how Emily literally
transforms herself to fit into that mold- it’s that she’s seen how people like Elizabeth
do the same exact thing -it’s the knowledge of just how pernicious
this process is regardless of whether you’re living or dead,
of how easy it would be for her to be the next in line.
What frightens Anya is the thought that, if she were to die that very moment, she and
Emily might not be that different. And that is Anya’s ghost-
a ghost of her own making, that is also the ghost we all made together –
one that haunts us every moment of every day, trading us simplified communication in exchange
for a constricted identity. Maintaining the surface is easy.
It’s a process that money can solve with makeup, clothes, stylists.
Maintaining your spirit, however, is hard. It takes work.
It takes a willingness to be vulnerable, to reflect on one’s imperfections, and to learn
from your mistakes. On the last page of the book, Anya turns down
a cigarette from Siobahn, remarking that it doesn’t look as cool as she thought it did.
Siobahn replies, “Geeze, Anya.
You may look like everyone else, but you’re not.
Not on the inside.” Normalcy is poison.
Identity lives in deviance. It’s the hardest thing in the world to embrace
the parts of yourself you were taught to hate- but in the end, that’s the closest path to…
not necessarily happiness, but something else. A feeling of being whole?
It won’t fix your problems or make your life easier, but it will help you grow the roots
that will help you weather the stormy days to come.
And that’s why I’ve returned to Anya’s Ghost so many times over the years. Also it’s a really pretty book, actually just
look at the te- [interrupted by TV static] Special thanks go to
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Le Tyr, Bianca Gonzalez,
Luke Jensen, Richard Daly,
Austin McCauley, Amy Mims,
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Much of the music in this episode was composed by Molly.Noise, and you can find links to
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and everything else I used in this episode. And hey, maybe check out my podcast, the Trans
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