It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth Review

By | Monday, December 19, 2022 Leave a Comment
It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood came out from Image Comics last month. The official description reads: "Cartoonist Zoe Thorogood records 6 months of her own life as it falls apart in a desperate attempt to put it back together again in the only way she knows how. IT’S LONELY AT THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH is an intimate and metanarrative look into the life of a selfish artist who must create for her own survival." But, frankly, that description -- while technically accurate -- really falls short of what's going on with this book.

First, a word of warning: the book (and to a lesser degree, this review) discusses mental health issues around depression that lead Thorogood to suicidal thoughts. You might consider skipping either and/or both if that might be triggering for any reason.

Thorogood notes early on that she's had depression and suicidal thoughts since she was fourteen, and that she essentially inherited both from her mother. That her mother largely refuses to discuss her issues, and her father was already emotionally drained from literally keeping his wife alive, so Thorogood's relationship with her parents is a bit strained. However, while her parents do figure into the story, they're not an especially large part of it. Thorogood doesn't seem to blame them in any way, though, and feels her issues are her own.

And that gets to the crux of the narrative here. Thorogood does indeed spend the six months recording what's going on, but the book is very much less about the actual events that take place and more a kind of stream-of-consciousness armchair psychoanalysis. The story flows from talking about why she's writing the book to what's happening in her life to where she's at mentally, also switching between different aspects of her personality, including a personification of her depression. But she's very clear that she started the book as a goal to try to work through her issues. Somewhat less obvious is that having that goal to work towards was literally keeping her alive; she was able to give herself a reason to continue living, if only for a few months. It's not an uncommon tactic for people struggling with suicidal thoughts to give them short-to-medium term obligations that they need to remain alive for. James "Scotty" Doohan somewhat famously saved a Star Trek fan's life after learning of her boughts of depression; Doohan "required" her to show up at every nearby convention he was attending for three years. He gave her an obligation to meet him at these cons and her absence would have been a tangible, material detriment to his con experience. The goal of her own survival was incidental to not letting one of her heroes down. So similarly, Thorogood here establishes the external goal of completing this project for the benefit of others. "Maybe I'd be dead if not for this. But instead, I'm going to make something that didn't exist before."

Towards the end of the book, she seems to be in a better place. Not "healed" certainly -- depression doesn't just "go away" like that -- but she wraps the book up with some notes about how she's trying to re-contextualize her suicidal thoughts when they do intrude, and how a person's existence can impact someone else even if you don't make a 'connection' in the way that many artists like to cite as their work's goal. (She's repeatedly hounded throughout her convention-going experiences by the word 'relatable.') For what all she's gone through, I truly hope that her ending about ammending "but I'm trying not to live there any more" to the title is a sincere one and not just a happy, bow-on-the-ribbon ending she put in because she thinks that what readers would prefer.

What I haven't talked about yet is the technical aspects of her storytelling. I'm reminded a bit of Hunter Thompson's work in that the entire book feels very fluid, metatextual, seat-of-the-pants flow of an artist cranking out page after page for months on end like some kind of nightmare version of making a 24-hour comic. But it's just too damned good to have actually been created like that. Thorogood's storytelling skill isn't just that she does a good job illustrating a narrative that is easy for the reader to follow, but she pulls in all manner of storytelling techniques across all comics-disciplines to make an exceptional experience. Most of the book is in black and white, for example, but she spikes color in a variety of ways that further enhance the storytelling. Not in a Sin City way where there's a single spot color to show very specific emphasis, and not in a Wizard of Oz manner when the film switches from sepia to color, but Thorogood pulls out some fantastic use cases to great effect. She treats lettering much the same way. And page layouts. And illustrative styles.

In the 1991 NBA playoffs, in one of the games, the Lakers were up by just a couple points in the last twenty-some seconds of the game. Magic Johnson, the Lakers' point guard, managed to get a rebound on the Bulls side of the court, and the opposing team provided heavy defensive coverage, hoping to take the ball back for a final basket that would give them at least the opportunity for some overtime. The problem he faced was that passing the ball to another player was a major risk of the game itself given the Bulls' defense, but the shot clock was less time than what was available in the game, so he couldn't simply hold the ball until the end either. What Johnson did, then, was to hold the ball as long as he could as the shot clock ticked down, and then bowled the ball down to the far end of the court. Not only was it a completely unexpected move that caught everyone off-guard, but it meant that the Bulls would have to race after it, being just out of reach for pretty much the entire length of the court. This would basically run out the clock for the remainder of the game without the Bulls even having a chance to get control of the ball. It was very much not a flashy move, nor one that has EVER been taught. I mention it here because it showcases just how much Johnson knew about basketball -- that he was able to assess the situation and, within seconds, come up with an entirely and wholly original strategy to ensure his team won -- that is a depth of basketball knowledge and skill that belies any stats you might read about the number of points they score in a game or the number of rebounds they got or whatever. Bowling a basketball like that highlights a deep, innate understanding of the game at every level.

That is what I think Zoe Thorogood is to comics. Her sometimes unconventional approaches make perfect sense seeing them in action, but are often not approaches you see anywhere else.

It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth is an absolutely amazing book, both for the story it tells and for the way in which it's told. This is "I am buying everything she makes from now on" good. I seriously cannot recommend this enough. It was, as I said, released last month and should be available at all major bookstores and comic shops; it retails for $12.99 US.
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