Review: Anya’s Ghost

Vera Brosgol makes a strong debut with this genuine tale of a young Russian girl trying to acclimate to America with the help of a supernatural friend.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

Anya's Ghost

Anya’s Ghost is a graphic novel from the other side of comic books, the side that’s less concerned with capes and powers and more with telling stories. While I may not 100% agree with Neil Gaiman’s description of Anya’s Ghost as a masterpiece, it is one of the sweeter, kinder and more genuine books I’ve read in awhile. Though firmly rooted in the idea of indie comics, Anya’s Ghost delivers its story without the pretense that so often derails them. What I loved about this book was how layered it was, how writer Vera Brosgol took several different angles and knitted them sweetly around the story of Anya and her desperate need to fit in.

Vera Brosgol, a Russian born artist currently living in Portland, Oregon, brings her own experience to the story and helps to deepen it. Anya is not just a teenage girl dealing with the standard horror of the high school years, she’s also an immigrant who desperately wants to shed her past and assimilate into the pack. She’s worked to lose her Russian accent, to shed the dumpy pounds she came to America with, and to try and distance herself from her sweet but smothering Russian mother and annoying little brother. As with most people living in the teenage years of doubt and self-loathing, Anya’s defense is sarcasm that’s usually aimed at those she’s closest to. She trades barbs with her best friend Siobhan, a girl who uses a loudmouthed defense as opposed to a sarcastic one, and pines after Sean, the hunky guy with the gorgeous blonde girlfriend.

During a particularly horrible day at school, Anya falls into a well where she discovers the skeleton of Emily Reilly, a girl from the early nineteen hundreds who died under suspicious circumstances. Through a series of circumstances that include a finger bone, Emily begins a friendship with Anya that seems like a dream come true. Anya meets Sean, gets invited to a party, does better in school, she begins to have the life she’s always wanted. As is usual with supernatural stories, everything with Emily is not as it seems and soon the friendship takes a turn for the worse. Through her relationship and eventual falling out with Emily, Anya learns some life lessons that help her to see who she is more clearly.

What’s really interesting about Anya’s Ghost is that it doesn’t need the ghost. To be honest, the entire Emily Reilly aspect feels a bit rushed, as if Brosgol decided Anya’s tale needed a supernatural element in order to get attention. Emily never really develops as a character and the big “twist” ending can be spotted about halfway through the book. Nothing that Emily does helps Anya in a way she couldn’t have been helped without the supernatural. The story of Anya is incredibly compelling and beautifully written. The characters are all exceptional and fit into the puzzle of the story save for Emily. To be honest, it would have been more fun to read of Anya discovering these life lessons on her own rather than being pushed into them by a moody poltergeist.

One of my favorite characters in Anya’s Ghost is Dima; a fellow Russian immigrant who has not rejected his past, branding him as a nerd. Not only does he represent Anya’s constant fear that she’ll be seen as an outsider, but also a reminder of the Russian heritage Anya wants nothing to do with. Brosgol goes for the hat trick by having Dima also represent a life that’s worse than hers. If Anya’s life is bad, then Dima’s life must be hell. I also have to give kudos to Brosgol for her depiction of the Phys-Ed day of fitness testing. It is the most horrible day in high school life and she captures every harsh embarrassment perfectly.

The art, also by Brosgol, is bright with a touch of Goth. Think of Persepolis but with a noir-meets-John-Hughes vibe. It’s big and bold and brings nice life to the story. Anya’s Ghost is the long form debut of a powerful new voice in comic books. Vera Brosgol has dialog, story and the ability to make us care for her creations. I only wish she had trusted Anya’s story to be as good as it is and left out the entire ghost part of it. If Anya’s Ghost had just been Anya’s Story, it would have been an actual masterpiece. That being said, it is still one of my favorite debuts of this year.