A walk through an early earth: The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

I spotted The Encyclopedia of Early Earth in the World’s Biggest Bookstore, at an end-aisle display in the graphic novels/comics/manga section. I wasn’t familiar with the author at all, but the title intrigued me, the cover art intrigued me, and with its large format, hard cover and striking design, it looked like a book with substance behind it. Come on – sewn case binding, lustrous blind spot coating on black, and colour custom illustrated endpaper patterns? How could I resist!

So I admired the printing and the paper, and flipped through a few pages to check out the story.

I was instantly mesmerized. It took a great deal of willpower to not finish the entire thing while standing in the aisle.

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The grey figures in the sky were blind spot printed and shone against the black cover to beautiful effect! You can see previews of the comic and more work on Greenberg’s website: Early Earth

It all begins with the chance meeting of a man from the North and a woman of the South Pole, who fall in love at first sight while travelling the frozen waters. They are kept separate – quite literally – by a bizarre phenomenon: they can’t seem to touch. But they can still love each other. So they pass the time together, and the man, by the way, happens to be a storyteller by trade. Naturally, he spins tales to his beloved. The narrative then goes for a gentle whirl, rewinding to show you the storyteller’s adventures of the past, leading back up to the present of the book’s beginning and the sweet but wistful future. Snow and coldness are constant in the story, but the characters and their interactions leave you feeling warm. At the end of the book, there are additional materials and short stories about the world of Early Earth.

If any of this makes the book sound complex, I apologize, because the last thing anyone should come away with after reading Early Earth is that it was convoluted or inaccessible. The stories are told simply, but with an incredibly deft hand. They come off straightforward but also clever and heartfelt, and it takes a lot of skill to be able to do something like that and not have it seem contrived. It feels effortless and right.

From the notes in the book and browsing Greenberg’s site, I was fascinated to learn that the stories were not written all at once but rather began life as a few pieces over time, because they all feel very purposeful and contribute well to a cohesive whole. Early Earth’s mythology draws a great deal of inspiration from existing cultures, including creation myths and folktales from a number of sources both European and not (there are, for instance, strong nods to aboriginal/indigenous cultures, particularly Inuit, and a very obvious take on the biblical flood story). It’s not afraid to show these influences while adding its own unique flavour and imagination to create a distinct fantastical universe. At the same time, the fresh ideas don’t feel out of place. Some of my favourite inventions are the gods of Early Earth, Birdman and his children Kid and Kiddo. Like Greek deities, they try to distance themselves from the lower human beings while being caricatures of us at the same time – through Birdman’s strict, paternal attitude with odd attempts at humour, for example, as well as Kid and Kiddo’s sibling rivalry (not to mention penchant for disobeying their father to meddle in the affairs of lower beings). I found their relationships with humans and with each other very interesting.

Greenberg’s art reminds me of stylized wood block prints, with limited but effective use of color. The drawings have a rustic look, and the characters are extremely expressive. The overall effect is whimsical and lovely, worn and familiar, perfectly suited to the story.

The medium is not new, nor are the stories themselves, nor even the stories-within-a-story mechanism through which we experience it. That’s not a detriment, however. The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a really wonderful reminder that all tales may already have been told in one form or another, but it is truly how they are told that distinguishes them in your memory. I found it a magical book, thoughtful and moving. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in comics, mythology, and/or simply good storytelling. I look forward to seeing more from Isabel Greenberg!