There are no words in the spellbinding new graphic novel by Port Richmond comics creator Christine Larsen.
Holy Diver — which makes its debut at a release party at Brave New Worlds Comics in Old City on Saturday — tells the story of a woman who leaves her peaceful village to go fishing with her lover and finds danger and mystery in the depths of a primordial sea. Ultimately, she's transformed by the experience.
It's an engaging hero story, inspired somewhat by Nordic legends and packed with action and emotion. We're pulled from panel to panel by large-scale battle sequences and small gestures — a worried mouth, the deep blues and blacks of a raging ocean, the way hair flutters in the wind on a beach at dusk.
You almost forget there's no dialog, no narration, no names. Telling stories without words is a relative rarity in comic books, especially in the United States. Larsen employed the technique in the 2016 collection Microcosmos, but the 40-page Holy Diver is her first full-length, word-free graphic novel. It sells for $16 at christinelarsenillustration.com.
"I like to give myself challenges," Larsen says of her decision to work in the "silent" comic subgenre. "Especially when you're doing mythology stuff, it forces you to get across your idea in a very succinct way without being laborious about things like names and places."
Larsen has it all mapped out in her head — who's who and what's what. She just doesn't see the point of putting it on the page. "Aren't they still people? Don't you still care about these characters?" she says. Even without a name, her heroine is still a heroine. "So what if I called her something crazy, like, you know, Glarblegloo or whatever? … It doesn't matter what her name is."
She laughs. "I'm a huge Tolkien fan, but who can … pronounce half [those names]?"
Larsen is into Beowulf, too, and some aspects of that famous epic come to mind when her protagonist is squaring off against an ancient monster from the deep. "The stuff you read and enjoy always creeps into your work, no matter how you're trying to get away from it," she says.
Of course, Holy Diver — which takes its name from a song by the late, great metal singer Ronnie James Dio — has something The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf do not: a strong female protagonist.
"Oh, yeah, well, sausage parties abound in that old saga fiction," says Larsen.
Same goes for the comics world, though she says things are better than they used to be. A veteran of the biz — her work has been published by such houses as Dark Horse, IDW, Boom, and DC Online over the last 10 years — Larsen finds she's often hired to draw male characters. They're not always the most satisfying.
"I just always liked drawing chicks," she says. "I always liked drawing … big, knock-your-block-off chicks, because it drives me nuts a little bit that female protagonists are always like these pretty, gentle … these chicks that don't look like they just could, like, crush you."
The title character in Holy Diver could definitely knock some blocks off. She has a muscles and a trident and knows how to kick some Kraken butt.
She also has pale blue skin. This isn't Earth, after all. It's a strange alien world where seaside villagers swim out into the ocean astride their three-eyed mer-tiger pets. The story takes place in the same universe as her earlier collection Microcosmos, and both are self-published by Larsen's Snaga Comix imprint. That said, Holy Diver requires no advanced reading.
These "silent" graphic novels are Larsen's personal labors of love. She makes her living drawing comics (for other writers' stories) and illustrations on a freelance basis. She's about to get working on a children's book once the funding comes through via Kickstarter. And as soon as our interview was over, she started working on labels for a winery in California.
It's possible you've come across her work. Her fantastical, large-scale installation "Farewell to Night" is hanging between Terminals E and F at Philadelphia International Airport.
Larsen also teaches courses on comics and sequential storytelling at the University of the Arts and at the Delaware College of Art and Design.
"I'm not teaching kids how to draw muscle men. I just want them to understand narrative structure and composition, and how that plays into storytelling."
She makes her students do "silent" comics, as well. That hammers home that classic piece of writing advice: Show, don't tell.
"It's important to understand gesture and be able to get across character relationships without burdening yourself with long, half-page narratives. I've definitely gotten that before. Let's not write the Great American Novel in one page of a comic."