One of the most fascinating aspects of human nature is our ability to adapt to our social surroundings. A person speaks differently when talking to their mom than they do when talking to a best friend or a lover. We can be efficient and organized in our professional lives while being lazy and unmotivated at home. There are always at least two sides to every person, but they rarely show both of them at once. Rarely reveal every aspect of themselves equally.
In The Two Lives of Penelope, author and artist Judith Vanistendael explores this duality. This original graphic novel from Europe Comics follows Penelope as she juggles her life as a wife and mother with her career as a doctor. Penelope has spent most of the last four years in Syria working with Doctors Without Borders. Now, she has returned home for three months and must ease back into her life with her family. A woman of two worlds, Penelope struggles to keep one separate from the other.
Much like the interplay of Penelope’s two lives, every aspect of this graphic novel is an interchange between two themes or styles. Vanistendael uses text sparingly, telling the story mainly through visuals. Yet, this doesn’t detract from the impact of the narrative. There’s a section toward the beginning of the book where the pages are split in half horizontally. Penelope’s experiences are shown in the bottom half and her daughter’s are shown in the top half. With Penelope in Syria and her daughter back in Belgium, the reader is shown two sets of events that are playing out simultaneously. This literary device creates a complex juxtaposition between disparate events.
There are a lot of unique aspects to Vanistendael’s artwork in The Two Lives of Penelope. The graphic novel itself is drawn and colored like a water-color painting. In the place of dialogue, color is used to convey the characters’ feeling. Through this technique, Vanistendael does a great job of showing her characters’ emotional journey rather than laying it out in narration or expository text. Some full-page illustrations look like they’ve come straight from a children’s book. This simplicity, however, works in the book’s favor. It allows the reader to focus on Vanistendael’s writing and to more closely follow Penelope’s emotional journey.
Another unique aspect has to do with the style of lettering. A cursive font is used for the dialogue. There are several panels where the speech bubbles are jumbled making it hard to follow the flow of conversation. Despite the graphic novel’s unique look, these disparities decrease the book’s readability to some extent. Longer text is used in several sections, including an inscription from Homer’s The Odyssey. These are presented in a handwritten font. The differing formats give the book an intimate feel, almost as if Vanistendael were telling this story directly to the reader. This feeling of a personal connection adds to the powerful nature of the narrative.
The Two Lives of Penelope features strong character development, interesting page layouts, and incredibly artistic illustrations. The story is simplistic in some respects and complex in others. The same can be said for the artwork. These dichotomies support the book’s overarching theme of duality. If you’re looking for a dramatic character study that also happens to be a graphic novel, this is the title for you.
Script and Art by Judith Vanistendael
Story: 8.0 Art: 8.5 Overall: 8.3 Recommendation: Buy
Europe Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review