I just read Shoplifter, a graphic novel by Michael Cho. I’m ambivalent about it: I like everything about it except the main story.

She may have stolen that cat

She may have stolen that cat

It’s about a young Korean-Canadian woman, Corinna, who works in advertising but has misgivings about it, especially when she’s asked to help market a perfume for nine-year-olds.

What I like most about it: the art. It’s printed in two colors, black and hot pink. I always like this choice, also seen in Ghost World and Fun Home; it clarifies otherwise black-and-white drawings without taking on full-color realism, which can be dull. Plus Cho often leaves out contour lines, which adds an elegant touch.

Also: there’s a story, it’s well paced, and punctuated by little art vistas and occasional jokes.  (I liked the bit where there’s a live news account of a plane crash,which turns out to be less and less tragic as the report continues, with the screen crawl changing accordingly.)  Corinna is cute and her problems are approachable.

What leaves a bad taste is the resolution of the story. Corinna realizes that she really wants to be a writer.  So (SPOILER) she quits her job and, on the very last page, goes into a store to buy some writing notebooks.  Oh come on, Mike.

When you’re a teenager you can get away with thinking “I’m a writer because I want to write.” By the time you’re in your 20s, you should amend that to “I’m a writer because I write.” By her own admission Corinna hasn’t written a thing but ad copy in five years. Aspiring creatives are warned, “Don’t quit the day job.” Corinna does so before she’s even done anything creative.

As Nick Hornby put it,

When I’m reading a novel, I have a need… to believe that the events described therein are definitive, that they really matter to the characters.  In other words, if 1987 turned out to be a real bitch of a year for Winston Smith, then I don’t want to be wasting my time reading about what happened to him back in ’84.

The real story of Corinna is likely what happens after she makes her decision. Can she in fact write?  How does she live while attempting to do it?  Can she still afford the nice apartment she had as a copywriter?  What does she write about?  How does she make anyone care about her writing?  (At least she’s Canadian, so she doesn’t have to worry about health care.)

(Why the title?  Because Corinna is a minor shoplifter.  It turns out that this is a symptom of the falseness of her life.)

It’s nice that Corinna has progressed in her self-actualization, but it’s bothersome that Cho is suggesting that the only thing standing in the way of an artistic career is the determination to get started. And the thing is, he knows this, because he’s published a couple of books himself and done a webcomic. “How I did this” is usually a better story than “How I decided to do it.”

Also— though this may possibly be intentional— I don’t find any of the characters completely likable. Corinna’s misgivings about ads comes off as a bit priggish… it’s perfectly understandable for an outsider, but she’s been doing this for five years, is this the first time she’s faced what advertising is like? Her boss hears about it and basically threatens to fire her, in a very smarmy and polite way. Yet she thanks him for the job at the end. Well, that’s wise— don’t burn your bridges— but it doesn’t make me like the guy.

But, eh, it’s a first novel and, like I said, very well done.  And really fiction doesn’t have to give you good advice.  The story captures the feeling of drifting through your 20s very well, even if it’s not very realistic about what the alternatives are.

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