Reviews||

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

22nd Nov 2013

★★★★★
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg
First things first, this is not a real encyclopaedia. It’s an epic graphic novel telling the history of a mythical period, a time before the dinosaurs when bird gods reigned over cold lands.

We follow our lonely storyteller as he searches for the missing piece of his soul, lost by a careless medicine man when he was a child.

Further problems arise when he meets the love of his life, only to discover there is a force field between them which means they can never touch. She asks him to tell the story of how he came to the South Pole, where they met.

He starts at the beginning, with the story of the three sisters who brought him up (and whose dealings with magic got him into his soul-related predicament).

The novel continues Matryoshka-like, with stories developing within stories as our hero meets people on his journey and tells them tales from far and wide. Each chapter works alone and as part of the whole.

There is a large cast of colourful characters, from warriors and gods to a wise old lady who poisons a monster with sausages (and who also takes over storytelling duties at one point).

The art style is incredibly beautiful and watercolours are used to great effect. Black ink combines with greys and whites for the base while other colours are picked out along the way (the yellow glow of a fire, the murky blue of a stormy sea, the red of a warrior woman’s dress).

Isabel Greenberg has invented entire civilisations and an alternative history of religion in the form of ‘The Bible of Bird Man’, in which we discover the genesis of Early Earth. Isabel Greenberg has invented entire civilisations and an alternative history of religion in the form of ‘The Bible of Bird Man’, in which we discover the genesis of Early Earth. It turns out the world came to exist due to a competition between Bird Man’s two children that got out of hand.

It’s easy to get sucked into the storyteller’s plight, and to care a great deal about what happens to him. Even the gods get involved, bickering over whether to help him or to make things more difficult.

But even after we learn his fate and the loose ends are tied up, it’s not the end of the book. Like all good encyclopedias, it has appendices, including ‘A Brief History of Time’ and illustrations of the birds and beasts of Early Earth.

The dialogue is at times serious and typical of epic adventure stories, while at others it can be amusing and tongue-in-cheek as the characters lapse into modern-style speech.

At one point Bird Man’s daughter, Kiddo, rejoices with cries of : “We’re so awesome I basically can’t cope.” The contrast works well and is never jarring.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is Greenberg’s début, but she already looks like one of Jonathan Cape’s leading lights in the genre. Let’s hope she doesn’t have to endure any more patronising interviews focusing on her youth and looks.

The book incorporates elements of short fiction, children’s stories, fictional anthropology and mythology. It reminds me of books I treasured as a kid which have never lost their appeal.

A timeless and beautiful graphic novel, it deserves to be coveted by children and adults for generations to come.