Roots – Graphic Novel Review

The graphic novel is an exceptionally good medium for exploring the inner life of an individual and the thoughts they have surrounding a place, situation or event. Sometimes it is easier for an artist or writer to explore difficult experiences visually than in prose and the result can invoke a strong and emotional reaction in the reader as well. This is the case with Tara O’Connor’s newly published graphic novel Roots.

In this travelogue of her journey from the US to Ireland to trace her ancestors, O’Connor has created a piece of work that is both moving and insightful. Her observations of the world around her and her examinations of her own feelings are wonderfully portrayed in beautiful black and while fluid drawings and expressive lettering. This a very personal story and a labor of love that is a joy to read and as soon as the reader finishes it, they will be hungry for more of O’Connor’s work.

Roots originally started out as an idea that came to O’Connor after her painful break up and subsequent divorce from her husband. Initial versions of the novel and her trip to Ireland were crowdfunded by fans of her work. Feeling lost and heartbroken and struggling to maintain her self esteem, O’Connor decided to trace her family history in the hopes that it would help her learn more about herself. It is also clear she was looking for change and contentment after years of struggling to maintain a normal life in a very unhappy relationship.

What starts out as the story of a breakup, turns into a travelogue, then into a journey of self-discovery and eventually ends as a sweet love story. O’Connor gently rolls the narrative from one theme to another without the shifts in subject ever seeming jarring or confusing. She subtly links the past hardships of her great-great-grandmothers to the very different life she now lives, gently reflecting on the challenges that people faced in the past in Ireland and as immigrants to the US.

As much as this is a story of finding old roots, it also a tale of new experiences. Tara O’Connor had never left the US before travelling to Ireland and she views everything with fresh eyes. Her observations of air travel, airports, Irish weather, food and places are exciting and delightfully sketched out within the wider story. O’Connor herself finds joy in all the little things in life that can be so easily overlooked in today’s busy world; a plane ride at night, shared looks between friends, being caught in a rainstorm, a scenic bus ride to somewhere new, a shooting star.

She spends time on these moments, often committing whole pages of drawings to them and including details such as all the many bus tickets she collected while travelling across Belfast. Another charming aspect of the novel is O’Connor’s wry sense of humor. She peppers the story with tiny amusing details often referencing film or popular culture, such as drawing herself and her Irish friend-turned-tour guide John into medieval heroes from a role playing computer game or drawing their facial expressions of discomfort while watching Gone Girl in the cinema.

Most of all, it is emotions that Tara O’Connor is so excellent at capturing in comic form and Roots reads like an outlet for all the feelings she has experienced over her travels in Ireland. This makes reading the novel feel like a very intimate experience. O’Connor accentuates this by including frames often filled with her face or with just her and John, so you can get up close to everything they feel and think in that moment. It may seem inevitable that John, also a comic book artist, and Tara fall in love, there is a hint early on in the book that they are already very close despite having never met each other in person (they met through Twitter), but the romance between the two never feels cliched or boring.

The moment when John takes hold of Tara’s cold hands, that she is so self-conscious of, and warms them in his own is one of the sweetest scenes of any graphic novel. Tara does not ‘find herself’ in Ireland, but rather she re-discovers her capacity to love someone and to be loved in return. This is a battle that she has to fight with herself, essentially deciding whether to give her heart away to another person after she has already experience devastating heartbreak.

It is this final theme of love and commitment as Tara and John navigate a long distance relationship across the world that makes Roots a story about not finding past family roots but learning where to plant your own roots for the future.

Roots is now available from IDW Publishing.

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