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Electric Girl, Vol. 1
by Michael Brennan
AiT/PlanetLar, 160pp
Published: December 2000

On the surface, these stories, collected from four issues of a comic book, are light reading but a heck of a lot of fun. The electric girl of the title is Virginia, who, from birth, carries a supply of electricity inside her body that comes out whenever she wants it to and sometimes when she doesn't. As a baby, whoever touches her gets a minor electric shock, more of a tingle than a damaging effect but a noticable one. As she grows up, and we see her at college, she gains the ability to control it but that control is never quite perfect, especially when the weather is muggy.

Otherwise, Virginia is just a normal girl. She has a pair of doting parents, a batch of stable friends and a stupid but cute dog. She goes to school, later college, and appears to do all the usual things that normal girls do. Oh, but there is one thing and it rather shapes her way of life on a daily basis. She has a kind of imaginary friend, called Oogleeoog, one that nobody else can see—you know the drill— but she doesn't grow out of him when she grows up because he's not actually imaginary. He's a gremlin and his job is to cause mischief wherever possible. It's testament to Michael Brennan's storytelling ability that Virginia remains the lead character throughout, because Oogleeoog could easily have just stolen the show.

As you probably guessed, the electric aspect to electric girl is Oogleeoog's doing. He was having plenty of the usual fun causing havoc in a hospital, as its resident gremlin, when in rush Virginia's parents, her mother about to give birth, and he spies the opportunity. From then on, he's with her constantly. Their relationship is an interesting one, because it's not all the negative that you're expecting. Oogleeoog is there to create mischief, sure, and he does, frequently and annoyingly, but he also helps Virginia out in many a situation. Maybe some of that ties to a need to keep her alive and functioning so that more and more opportunities for shenanigans arrive, but I got the strong impression that he cares about her and some of what he does is absolutely protecting a loved one.

I got the impression relatively early on that this feels rather like a cartoon strip. I could easily see it as a syndicated daily strip in a newspaper like 'Peanuts' or 'Garfield' or 'Calvin & Hobbes', to which this has some similarities. When I got to the end of the book, I wasn't particularly surprised to discover that this was how 'Electric Girl' started out, but it didn't take and so shifted into a different format. Each issue of the comic book, which are presented here in order, includes a couple of major story, one usually longer than the other, and a much shorter piece that's more crudely drawn but which is even more joyous. That may sound counterintuitive but the joy is because of the different approach taken.

The main stories are told in all the traditional ways with panels and dialogue and sound effects and the things you expect in a graphic novel. The shorter stories are different in that they're told silently, which is a strange approach for this format where there's no audio component to begin with. It's done by not using words, replacing them in the dialogue bubbles with symbols that are simple enough to translate, mostly into simple emotions. Some are as simple as exclamation marks or question marks, others more sophisticated, but they all come across as emotion, just like the faces in silent films.

Perhaps realising what Brennan is doing in those shorter stories will prompt people to look deeper into these stories than the surface entertainment, which doesn't appear to be at all challenging. I didn't as I read for the most part, settling for the light enjoyment, but I thought about it after I'd turned the last page and I'm still thinking about it as I write this review because it's probably fair to say that Brennan rarely takes the expected path at any point in this book.

For one, when you read the first paragraph in my review, did you think superhero? The ability to use an internal store of electricity sounds like a mutant superpower, right? Well, that's not what Brennan does here. In fact, the major story in the first issue features an antagonist who can only be truly described as a four-year-old supervillain. Yet, even as Virginia uses her electric power to destroy the toys he hurls at her, she's never a superhero. She's just a girl stuck in a bizarre situation who only wants to get out of it. As often as she gets to use her powers, she suffers from the side effects, shortcircuiting electronics and blowing fuses without ever wanting to. Is this an ability or a disability?

For another, Virginia is continually depicted as a normal girl, with this one quirk that everyone accepts, but the stories she ends up in are rarely normal. There's no explanation at all given for the supervillain kid. He's just there. The zombie in the second issue is explained, because he dies of food poisoning after eating at his favourite restaurant and returns to seek revenge, but that's really a back story. It doesn't explain why zombies exist or why they exist like souls who continue to hang around as ghosts until they settle something and can then move into the light. The robot in the third issue is explained too, but not really. It's just a device to make the story possible, just like the supervillain and the zombie.

The point here is that those are all genre stories that exist in a realm of fantasy, whether that genre is superhero or horror or science fiction. However, they happen in a world that's blissfully unaware. That supervillain is only ever visible to Virginia and Oogleeoog and the dog. The zombie only appears to the world-at-large as a corpse, because he's hidden otherwise. The robot's more overt, given that he's out there in public doing all sorts of things; but it's not treated as a science fiction gimmick, just an unusual thing in a usual world. The same goes for Virginia's power, because it's simply accepted by everyone. Is acceptance the point here, or is it a constant lack of acknowledgement of anything that doesn't fit into our collective understanding of reality?

I wonder how this all grows in future issues/books. There are two further collected volumes available in the series that I haven't read, but I'm intrigued as to where Brennan takes these characters. It's hard to not like this because it's so quintessentially readable, but I think it would be easy to dismiss it as simple surface entertainment that has no depth. And anyone who does that will be missing out. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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