What is a Glacier? is a series of ruminations about mortality, with cartoonist Sophie Yanow grappling with our seeming helplessness in the certainty of death: the death of family members, relationships, and the environment. Each worry flows into the next, in an anxiety spiral many of us will recognize all too well.
Yanow is that rare sort of cartoonist with a seemingly effortless ability to gracefully string together stream-of-consciousness thoughts with sociopolitical reportage into concise, relatable narratives. The comic opens with Yanow accompanying her friend Hannah to Iceland, where Hannah has a stopover on her way to a family visit. The two get excited at the prospect of going on a tour inside a glacier until they learn it is prohibitively expensive. They quickly change plans, but Yanow admits she doesn’t know “exactly what a glacier is.” She does some online research, which inevitably leads to the subject of global warming which, some experts say, is likely irreversible at this point—as inevitable as death. The rest of this 28-page comic depicts Yanow’s time in Reykjavik and back home in Vermont, with flashbacks to an extended sojourn to Montreal. Among other things, she ponders her breakup, one year ago, with a girlfriend named Sarah; the fact that her father once told her that he never thought he would live to the age of 64, her anxiety over being deported while living in Montreal, and her overarching fear of the end of the world. She asks: “How do I get better at endings?”
Yanow works in all kinds of little textures and frissons, even in this short narrative. One theme is the moment-to-moment reactions to stressful realities. At one point, while admiring the natural beauty of the landscape, she begins to guilt herself: “My presence in Iceland is just speeding up climate change. All this new Icelandic tourism is just going to devastate their natural beauty. All these plane rides. All that fuel.” Soon after, she and Hannah meet up with their friend Eli in Reykjavik. When they tell Eli they found an Airbnb to stay in, Eli berates them: “Oh no! Those rentals have pushed almost everyone out of downtown Reykjavik—nobody can afford to live down here anymore because it’s all Airbnbs!” Sophie and Hannah are taken aback. But a moment later Eli exclaims, apropos of nothing, “I saw Bjӧrk in a café yesterday!” It’s easy to feel bad about the ways we contribute to harming the planet, but it’s also easy to push those feelings away to whatever else might be happening in the moment. Yanow frequently points out the ways in which we cope … by simply not coping. To visualize the story Yanow employs an impressionistic, spontaneous line that matches her narrative’s restless, free-form observations. The expressive simplicity of her drawings hit the mark every time.
Near the end of What is a Glacier? Yanow finds comfort in the words of James Lovelock, a “rogue scientist,” who has written that it’s too late to stop global warming and that we should simply accept that fact and enjoy the time we have left. This fatalistic view aids her in avoiding thinking about it “for another year.” However, she notes, while environmentalist Bill McKibben agrees with Lovelock that climate change is irreversible, he disagrees that we should simply accept it, and we should instead do everything we can to diminish its effects. Ultimately, Yanow seems to side with McKibben’s take. Earlier, while staring at a waterfall in Iceland, she had mused: “Sometimes it feels like we are trying to force revelations.” But—getting better at endings—Yanow now concludes that, “Sometimes even the most forced of revelations are of some use.” What is a Glacier? expertly presents complex issues in engaging visual terms, generating much food for thought. It is one of the best, smartest comics that I’ve read this year.
Rob Kirby is a cartoonist, writer, and editor based in Minneapolis. His most recent books include The Shirley Jackson Project: Comics Inspired by Her Life and Work (2016), What’s Your Sign, Girl? Cartoonists Talk About Their Sun Signs (2015) and the Ignatz Award-winning QU33R (2014). He is a regular contributor to The Comics Journal, a guest editor for Illustrated PEN, and is currently at work on a long-form graphic memoir called Marry Me a Little. robkirbycomics.com