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The graphic novel I, Parrot combines two unquestionable talents. Deb Olin Unferth is a major new literary voice, whose award-winning short prose has appeared in a range of top literary journals, and her book-length work includes two story collections, a novel, and a memoir, all published by prestigious independent presses. Elizabeth Haidle is creative director of Illustoria, a visual storytelling magazine for children, and she brings a smart, cartoon energy to Unferth’s writing. Together the two tell the story of their narrator Daphne’s struggles to win custody of her son, maintain her relationship with her boyfriend, and care for 42 exotic parrots. The three goals interweave since the parrots belong to her boss, and she is taking care of them to earn money to pay her lawyer, while also proving to the court that “inappropriate abusive men” are not “loitering the household,” a fact made increasingly clear as her boyfriend, Laker, takes on the positive role of step-father to little Noah. Despite dominos of mishaps, the fragmented family and their 42 adoptive pets pull through together.

Although Unferth’s family-oriented plot and Haidle’s style sometimes evoke children’s illustrated books, the occasional “fuck” in Laker’s dialogue clarifies the target audience. This is for grown-ups—and yet the intentionally simplistic rendering is more than surface details. While always expressive, Haidle’s faces are more geometric than human: circle cheeks, triangle noses, blocks of hair. The effect is counterweighted by the subtle gradations of her interior shading, which look brush-stroked in gray wash.

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Her page layouts are playful and evolving, varying from traditional gutters to open panels to maze-like circles, with a recurring motif of diagonal divisions.

Image result for I, Parrot

Image result for I, Parrot

Image result for I, Parrot

The overall effect creates the sense of a children’s world inhabited by adults—which also describes Daphne. The core of her life is not her job or her boyfriend but her son. Haidle’s art makes that fact palpable by rendering every element of Daphne’s story in a style most suited to a child.  Even when Noah isn’t on the page, he is still his mother’s cartoon heart.

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As the authors describe in a Comics Alternative interview, the project originated with Unferth’s stick-figure sketch of the novel, which earned her a contract with her publisher who then introduced her to Haidle. The two worked together long-distance, via email, Skype, Dropbox, and one extended visit. While most comics collaborations begin with a written script, Haidle instead adapted Unferth’s visuals, while Unferth in turn revised to include not only Haidle’s input but her personal experiences—including her own son’s insights into the character of Noah.

While the relationship of writer and artist is always complex, the complexity is even greater here. Typically an artist receives verbal descriptions only, often with complete control of layout. But any given image choice may or may not have originated with Unferth, with Haidle translating rather than wholly inventing visual qualities. I suspect this somewhat reduced Haidle’s role as author. It also implies that Unferth is the primary author, and Haidle her illustrator, a common credits division, which the cover and title page resists by listing both creators side by side and without attribution. It is Unferth’s first graphic novel, a form she said was different and harder to work in than she expected. She calls I, Parrot “a plot-heavy book,” something she strived for since her wide experience in prose writing gave her expertise in plot but not image. She also gives Daphne’s voice a sharp but believable eloquence from the opening page, describing, for example, “relentless errands over a churning earth” and “the roar of the unhappy mind.”

The novel is less successful at exploring the intersections of word and image that define the uniqueness of the comics form. Often a panel’s figures and its narrated or spoken language overlap in ways that duplicate each other rather than provide independent information that combines in unexpected ways. Page one, for example, opens with the narration: “I finally found a job,” followed by a smaller script statement, “That’s me, Daphne,” and an arrow pointing at a woman smiling and waving as if at the reader. Daphne as drawn includes additional information (she has long black hair, etc.) but the image-text relationship is rudimentary. When Haidle draws Daphne slumped in a chair, Unferth’s talk balloon “Sigh” adds nothing the image did not already convey. While the redundant style further implies a children’s book aesthetic consistent to the novel’s theme, Unferth and Haidle rarely challenge those visual norms and so don’t use other effects available to literary graphic novelists.

Since Unferth drafted the novel in sketch form and it is her first graphic novel, it’s not surprising that she hasn’t plumbed the form’s full potential yet. While I, Parrot is a solid entrance into the field, I predict Unferth’s future graphic work will go further.

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[A version of this post and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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