Review: Island Book by Evan Dahm

island book cover
Cover courtesy of First Second

How have I not talked about Evan Dahm before? Evan Dahm is one of those creators I just can’t get enough of. I’ve read all his graphic novels at least twice, and that includes this, his latest completed graphic novel, Island Book.

Island Book tells the story of Sola, a girl living on an island in a vast, unexplored ocean. Many inhabitants of the island believe she is cursed, because of her strange connection to a giant creature simply called “the monster” which lives in the ocean, and which devastated the island when it attacked years ago. So one night Sola steals a boat and sets off into the ocean, hoping to discover the mystery of the monster, and why it seems drawn to her, for herself. She soon learns that there are other islands out there, populated by different peoples, some of whom join her in her quest to find the monster.

By different “peoples,” I mean different fantasy races. If you’re familiar with Evan Dahm’s work, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I believe he refers to them as “kinds” rather than species or races. Basically there’s no humans or elves or dwarves (though Sola’s island’s islanders are fairly close to human.) The character/kind design is an outgrowth of the island they live on—or maybe it’s the other way around. Anyway, this means all the islands are incredibly uh guess what insular, on a design level. Motifs of shape and color are repeated in the look of the land, the island’s ships, and the islanders themselves. For instance, “Fortress Island” is inhabited by these big, hulking turtle people, with ships that look like ironclads. Likewise, the cultures of the islands harmonize with their iconography, and the whole color palette of the book changes from island to island.

All this to say, the character design and setting design are fairly obvious, though they’re not clichéd, and they’re certainly effective. And the individual characters, specifically Sola, Hunder, and Wick, are not just two-dimensional embodiments of their respective cultures, they each have their own stuff going on.

That said, I wish the book had spent a bit more time with them out on the open sea, just interacting with and getting to know one another. For the most part, the three are always going to an island, escaping an island, or on an island. While each island is very clearly defined, I didn’t get as much of a sense of character from the ocean—or even just a sense of how the characters feel being out there in this vast expanse of water so different from the places they’ve lived their entire lives.

As for the story, it’s pretty straightforward, but gets weirder and weirder towards the end. There’s a certain mythic quality to it, with echoes of The Odyssey and Moby Dick and let’s throw Stalker in there since I just watched that and I know it’s an influence of Dahm’s. The simplicity of the plot reinforces that mythicism, and makes for a quick read. Dahm’s dialogue never overwhelms the visuals, and in fact seems born along by the flow of the images, making for a very immersive read that never slams on the brakes for big chunks of text. And the writing itself is great, with distinct voices for each character and for the different groups of islanders, and a register that is sometimes mythic though never feels stilted—just like the book itself.

island book spread
Excerpt courtesy of First Second

The ending feels a bit pat for two of the three main characters and abrupt for the third, though this is certainly not a book that cares more about the destination than the journey, so I wasn’t too disappointed by it. Also, there’s a “1” on the spine, so hopefully this story or this world will continue in other books.

At this point I should say that this book is absolutely gorgeous. As I said, it flows wonderfully, and every figure in every panel is full of motion and attitude. The book is alive, with vibrant expressive colors and frequent 1 or 2-page splashes of islands to instill awe. This may as well be an art book, and I often find myself just flipping through its pages looking at the little worlds captured in each panel.

What struck me most about reading this book is how much it made me want to, like, build these islands with like, legos? Or to draw maps of the islands? Something about the simplicity of the island designs and their iterative, fractal nature, makes it very easy to imagine different parts of them, to recreate them—like, the fact that the design is so cohesive, repeated on macro and micro levels, makes it so that you can capture the entire essence of an island with just one building, one icon. The islands are such perfect little worlds unto themselves, they can be satisfactorily held entire in your head in a way that fantasy settings usually can’t. Evan Dahm’s Overside, for example, the world his other books are set in, feels enormous, teeming with diverse life and surreal geography. None of the locations feel totally comprehensible, existing as they do in connection with the whole strange landscape. But the islands in island book do feel comprehensible—with the exception, perhaps, of the “white island” where the monster is supposed to live.

Anyway, there’s something very pleasing about that, and I know I would’ve loved this book as a kid for that very reason—the ease with which these islands can be understood, recreated, iterated upon. And this ease of understanding stands in contrast to the vast ocean, and the monster, which are unknown and perhaps unknowable. It’s like it’s a theme or something!

So yeah. This is a very cool book, great for kids I’m sure (I didn’t mention that but it is a kid’s book), great for any fans of secondary-world fantasy, and great for anyone who loves imaginative, surreal art. I feel like Evan Dahm’s books often warp my brain as I sink deeper and deeper into them, changing the way I process narrative, character, and place, retraining my mind to better engage with the singular experience I’m taking in, and Island Book is certainly no exception. Dahm’s imaginative, iterative world-building is on full display here, and it is a delight to explore.

3 thoughts on “Review: Island Book by Evan Dahm

  1. Francis, I wish I’d had access to your reviews when I was still teaching middle and high school reading. Do you ever review historical graphic novels? What do you think of them as a viable means of teaching history? I’m thinking of Maus, March, and Persepolis, to name several. Would you consider reviewing George Takei’s The Called Us Enemy when it comes out later this month?

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