By Rodge Glass
Maybe you haven’t seen any of Zoe Thorogood’s work yet. If you’re interested in the world of graphic art, it surely won’t be long until you do.
Just now, Thorogood is the most talked-about up-coming young artist in the industry, partly because of her 2020 debut The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott, and partly because of the considerable buzz around this book, published at the end of last year by Image Comics.
It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth is Thorogood’s second standalone volume, though she’s contributed to Joe Hill’s Rain, also (amongst others) to Marvel’s The Edge of Spiderverse-UK and also to the likes of HAHA. (Subtitled ‘Sad Clown Stories’, that one in particular feels appropriate, given how many creepy, smiling masks there are in Thorogood’s own work).
If you resent young artists having success early, no matter how deserving they are, then perhaps it’s best to look away now. Thorogood is twenty-four and currently touring conventions across the world, having secured five prestigious Eisner nominations this year, winning Best Newcomer for this book and being shortlisted for best writer and artist too, while It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth has found a hungry, dedicated, international readership that responds in particular to her representations of chronic depression.
Thorogood lives in Bradford. It’s hardly L.A. Only a few years ago, she had barely shared any of her work. Famously, when she did share it, she was immediately tagged as ‘the future of comics’ (in a scene from the author’s life reproduced in the pages of this book).
No pressure, then. If there is a more meteoric, unlikely rise in the world of graphic art, you’d have to look hard to find it. All this attention applies a particular pressure to Thorogood’s work, as even the most open-minded readers might be forgiven for approaching It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth wondering what all the fuss is about. Expecting, even, to be disappointed.
And then you look at the pages.
The first thing you notice is the sheer formal inventiveness, Thorogood’s approach to every page being radically different to the last. Within each page, too, she’s ever-moving. Dazzingly inventive, with a restless approach to how the panels act in conversation with each other.
Thorogood is incredibly versatile, from beginning to end, in a way so striking and rare in its diversity that I kept wanting to abandon the story to go back and just enjoy individual panels in their own right.
One moment she renders her own self-portrait in realistic fashion, intricately sensitive in every line, the next she’s turned into a woman with a circled, cartoon head and a deadpan, straight line for a mouth. One minute she’s Manga Zoe, the next she’s hovered over by the monstrous representation of her own suicidal ideation, a recurring motif as haunting as anything in the most frightening horror cinema.
Echoing the motif used in Netflix’ own dark, animated exploration of chronic depression, Bojack Horseman, some characters are rendered here as animals that bear a relation to their personalities, or their roles in Zoe’s life.
Elsewhere, Thorogood resorts to almost all text, or to collage, or even to photographs. One double-page spread of the artist, sitting on the floor, with pages of the book out in front of her a startling reminder of how, despite all this high-wire play, there really is a person, hurting, at the end of all this. It’s disturbing. It’s troubling. But it’s powerfully rendered too.
The narrative of It’s Lonely at the End of the Earth seems almost beside the point, though it would be strange not to mention it at all. Subtitled ‘an auto-bio-graphic-novel’, it follows six months in Thorogood’s own life, in which she battles her own depression, lack of confidence, struggles with ordinary interactions with her family and a friend, all while her debut graphic novel sees her tentatively enter the world of conventions, fans, hotel rooms, travel. The main turn the story takes is when she goes to the US to stay with an older man, a fellow artist. He has children, and complications, and she feels rejected when he sends her home.
Some of this feels like pretty familiar fare. Zoe’s friend guesses she will be hurt if she goes on the trip. She does. Readers can see what’s coming too. The strength of Thorogood’s work is not rooted in its uncommonness, but rather its cyclical predictability. It’s the story of a young woman in search of a story that is her own, not some re-hashed repeat of one she’s seen hundreds of times before. And yet, that’s what she’s stuck with. Ordinary heartbreak. Ordinary anxiety. Ordinary, but crushing.
Still, somehow the details of Zoe’s heartbreak seem vanishingly small next to, say, the way she describes the liberating sense of her own smallness as the plane takes off on her trip. The most powerful parts of It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth, for this reader at least, are when the attempt to forge a ‘story’ from this six-month period is abandoned for a while, allowing Thorogood to just show us the moment, whatever that moment is, in all its dark, disturbing beauty.
At times, it feels like Thorogood has lost confidence in her right to tell any story at all. Repeatedly, she openly questions her motives. After one panel in which she is falling through the sky backgrounded by the words, ‘SELFISH SELFISH SELFISH’, she asks herself: ‘Who am I protecting with this bullshit?’
At times I felt like the author was actively daring me to put her book down, or to disapprove. ‘Autobios can be placed in one of two categories,’ she writes, towards the end, ‘Masturbation, or menstruation’. Like so much of the text, it feels like a cheap joke and a serious point all at once.
Zoe’s family are really quite nice. They try hard to help her, though she doesn’t know how to be helped. She has a good friend. She finds success, and her art gives her an outlet for pain. Isn’t this all, she seems to be suggesting, a bit indulgent?
At times, some readers might wonder what the root of all that pain of hers is, anyway. What’s so terrible. Why she can’t just appreciate what she has and get on with it. Though to think like that is, perhaps, to miss the point of how depression sometimes works, and how writing about it might connect with others suffering similarly.
The Zoe at the heart of this stunning piece of work creates an artificially limited, six-month period of auto-bio-graphic storytelling on herself, though life itself will continue to resist neat narrative arcs, neat life lessons, no matter her timetable. Rather, the same limitations and challenges will keep reoccurring, again and again. All we can do, as readers, is admire how oddly gorgeous it all looks on the page, in spite of all that pain. Or because of it.
About our contributor
Rodge Glass is the author of eight books, published since 2005: three novels, two graphic novels, one collection of short stories, one biography, and most recently, one book of literary criticism: Michel Faber: The Writer & his Work (Liverpool University Press, 2023). His writing has been nominated for eight national or international awards and he won a Somerset Maugham Award for Nonfiction for his biography of Alasdair Gray. His work has been translated into various languages, with stories and novels in Italian, Serbian, Danish and Spanish. In 2023, Glass won the Anne Brown Essay Prize for ‘On the Covenant’, a chapter from his hybrid blood memoir, the part-autobiography, part-biography, Joshua in the Sky (forthcoming, 2024, Taproot Press). He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde and Convener of both the MLitts in Creative Writing and Interdisciplinary English Studies.