Another book from First Second that I’m late to the party on. The Undertaking of Lily Chen revolves around the Chinese tradition of finding a bride for a dead son so that he won’t be alone in the afterlife. It’s called a “Ghost Wedding” and it’s a practice that’s become popular again which has resulted in murder. I tell you this because the book tells you all this before even starting the story. At the same time, it was on the news and something I found quite disturbing and yet fascinating. The story starts off in the middle of two men fighting. It’s clear that the fight isn’t extremely hostile, but that there’s a lot of emotion behind it. The two men are brothers, and they’re venting some pent up family drama which results in the death of one of the brothers. The younger of the two flees. He runs all the way back to his parents’ house and tells them what happened, but the incredible thing is that there’s never a written word to accompany it.
Once the dialogue starts back up, we find the parents still in shock, but they’re now hell-bent on sending their favorite child to the grave with a wife. Deshi, the younger brother, must now go out and find a ghost marriage broker. Things being what they are the man that Deshi contracts brings him to a very dead woman’s grave. She’s been dead for so long that he’s not sure he can come back to his mother with this body. Eventually, Deshi crosses paths with Lily Chen who is looking for any way out of her life as her father is practically being forced to marry her off to save his house and farm. The first time he meets Lily, Deshi prepares to kill her and yet this encounter doesn’t define their relationship or the events that follow.
The story doesn’t offer a ton of twists and turns. It’s pretty straightforward with what is going to happen to the point that you can figure it out for yourself. That’s not the point of the story, though. It’s an unusual love story that has a lot of dark humor mixed in. That’s the part that caught my attention, was the dark humor. For instance, Lily’s father, covered in mud, bleeding and soaking wet just walks into Deshi’s parent's house and sits down like he belongs there. Clearly, he doesn’t, and it’s a strange moment for sure, but it's humorous.
Danica Novgorodoff manages to take a straightforward story and do an incredible amount of character development. Deshi, in particular, goes through a range of emotions and in the end, is forced to deal with some hard truths like the type of person his brother was and how his family treats him. What’s also very different about the ending is that it doesn’t pretend that these characters are going to live happily ever after, just that they’ll live… most of them. It’s that acknowledgment of real life that also makes the story stand out.
The art is interesting, to say the least. It’s very different, but it fits the story. Each panel is water colored which gives it a nice look. The line work/brush work is simple and yet maintains a level of detailed. It’s deceiving in that way to the untrained eye. There’s visual humor and gags as well that go along with what I previously mentioned about the story. Overall it’s a style that would need to accompany a particular story type, but then that’s the charm of Novgorodoff’s style. If like me, you haven’t checked out The Undertaking of Lily Chen, then give it a chance. It’s one of the most unique graphic novel’s I’ve ever read and a standout title from First Second.
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The Undertaking of Lily Chen Creator: Danica Novgorodoff Publisher: First Second Books Price: $29.99 Format: TPB; Print