By Jason D. DeHart
Greenberg, Isabel. Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës. Harry N. Abrams, 2020.
The purpose of this review is to focus on Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës (2020) by author/artist Isabel Greenberg using scholarship on multimodality to talk about her visual and textual work. Bezemer and Kress (2016) have offered a theoretical framework for examining multimodal works—those that convey meaning across a variety of modes, or spaces for communication, within a particular medium. Greenberg’s graphic novel demonstrates not only the marriage of pictures and words, but also rethinks how worlds found in literature exist and ideas collide in storytelling. In Glass Town, Greenberg uses both the real and the imagined to explore classic literature. The graphic novel form affords Greenberg a variety of tools including words and pictures, but also gestures, colors, word art, and other features, to use in this work.
Other publications by Greenberg, including The Encyclopedia of Early Earth (2013), take the reader back to the primordial origins of the world and reconstitute them for her own purposes. Greenberg’s works show that the graphic novel medium is not simply reserved for superheroes, but rather revolves around more global notions of origins, identity, and ontology. She accomplishes this in a highly entertaining, poignant, and often humorous manner as she traces an alternative history of the world. Similar to her other titles, the narrative of The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is episodic and playful. In her 2016 graphic novel, The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Greenberg takes a leap back in time that recalls her earlier work, focusing on a pair of deities who have a role in shaping the world. Following this frame narrative, the reader is introduced to the world of men and the contrasted world of women who are oppressed by them. What could have been an ideal universe is transformed into a brutal one as men seek to dominate, and the narrative focuses on the interactions between two such men; it is told through a series of stories offered by one man’s wife who becomes a plaything in their sexist games.
Yet another World in Glass Town
Following The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Greenberg now offers Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës. While other books take on a standard retelling of literary histories, Greenberg continues to practice world-building and reality-shaping in this story. It is rendered in the same beautiful and episodic style that she uses in previous work. Greenberg sets this expectation for play with reality at the outset as she tells us in an opening note to the reader: “The following book is a work of historical fiction” (2). The reader is then informed that biographical details have been “embroidered, embellished, and indulged in a great deal of supposing” (2). Those familiar with Greenberg’s previous works would expect such biographical embroidery and embellishment. To then drive readers further into this world, Greenberg offers a page that showcases the characters before the prologue. By setting this page up, Greenberg clues the reader into some of the relationships and characteristics that will be featured in the book. Each episode of the story is separated by a title card with a date, as if the reader is observing a strange and wonderful PBS miniseries.
In taking up my review of this book, I am reminded of Bezemer and Kress’s examples of multimodal communication. In one instance, the theorists explore a laparoscopic surgical procedure, noting how screens and gestures create additional spaces for communication. In another example, Bezemer and Kress describe a job interview, noting the ways that gestures and intonation convey meaning. While Greenberg does not use screens, she does have panels, and while readers cannot hear intonations, they can read similar meanings in the way that words are depicted in the graphic novel. Like the examples found in this theoretical work, Greenberg uses gestures and expressions and convey meaning as she attentively shapes the physiognomy of her characters. As Kress (2000) wrote elsewhere, “it is now no longer possible to understand language and its uses without understanding the effect of all modes of communication that are copresent in any text” (337). Indeed, ignoring the full assembly of meaning-making that Greenberg to this work fails to do service to the artistic co-presentation she shares.
In order to present this world, Greenberg draws on words and images that utilize the letter art, space between panels, expressions, gestures, and layout choices that the graphic novel medium offers so richly. The first full page of the narrative features six small panels arranged in two tiers before settling on a spread at the bottom of the page that continues to the next page. The reader encounters a world of drab grays, boots splashing on puddles, and a location—the Yorkshire moors—that even someone with only a superficial knowledge of the Brontës would recognize. When readers reach the second page of the story, they meet Charlotte face-to-face. “Who’s there?” she asks, inviting readers to the story before addressing them in the bottom panel spread of the second narrative page (7). Her expression is one of open curiosity, with no malice or reserve, but this quickly changes within the panels. Her gestures are open and her pose is resting, with her arm folded across a reclining figure. Though it appears Charlotte has addressed the reader through her gaze, she is speaking to another character who enters the scene in the first panel of the subsequent page and she introduces a new splash of color into the story.
Through characters, expressions, and interactions, Greenberg displays a hint of what could ostensibly be read as romance but is quickly relayed as anguish. The speaker’s facial expression changes by the bottom of this second narrative page and now shows more concern. She is also looking up at the second character as he looms over her, and Charlotte’s response is made most apparent by the second panel on the last tier of the page, in which Greenberg connotes concern through a gesture of hands of forehead and a bent figure. Clearly, Charlotte has gone through an emotional transformation in the space of four panels.
The power dynamics of a romance with outer layers of oppression and dark secrets—of the variety found in Jane Eyre— inform this part of the story, which proves to be a frame narrative. In an artistic move that brings to mind the work of Faith Erin Hicks in The Nameless City (2016), Greenberg characterizes motion with word art, as when a character pushes her glasses up on her nose to display her sense of disdain (figured with the word “push” appearing next to her hand) (9. When the male character makes an unwelcome gesture, a similar word art example occurs as the female figure swipes the male’s hand away, with the word “swipe” hovering between them above lines that indicate this motion (9). It is not simply the arrangement of some text and pictures that Greenberg brings to bear, but the entire ensemble of color, shading, word, expression, gesture, and motion that communicate meaning to the reader. Kress (2000) called this kind of multimodal assemblage “the work of design” (340), and Greenberg articulates this work with purpose and beauty.
As readers move through each subsequent chapter, from the first one (entitled “Weird Words”) to the book’s conclusion, they encounter new characters and color schemes. There are new spaces in sweeping spreads, and characters become familiar through their interactions as well as how they address the reader in monologue format. This work leads the reader to grow to love some characters while recognizing that others have ulterior motives and manipulations. As the reader is transported panel to panel and page to page, a sense of the grounded world that the characters exist in is conveyed without sacrificing the coexistence of imagination and creativity within this historically-based world. In one instance, an invitation to Glass Town involves a trip into the dark world of an ornamental chest, calling to mind the work of C.S. Lewis. Greenberg portrays the invited character floating through a dark abyss, bringing in elements outside of the reader’s expectations for normality but also hinting at the uncertain feelings of the character through this imagery. As yet another example of the kind of work Greenberg can do in the space of a graphic novel, readers encounter a scene in which Charlotte and Anne long to return to their home. This panel is the last one featured on page 189 of the story, and it depicts an image of the characters’ home floating above their faces, swept with lines and light colors. Just as Sara Varon uses wavy lines to depict dreams and imagination in her wordless graphic novel Robot Dreams (2007), Greenberg depicts this image with similar lines. In this visual space, readers see the words themselves, the expressions of the characters, the artistic decisions with the background of the image, the line work of the imagination, and the image of home itself, all capturing the desire for home in layers of detail.
At the end of the story, readers are reintroduced to the original color scheme of grays and minor inclusions of brighter shades, as well as the original characters, and Greenberg closes with the advice to read the works of the Brontës in their original context. In this way, readers encounter a bookend to the narrative. Moreover, readers are reminded of the world in which the story is set, including the themes that the Brontës explored so richly. Greenberg’s story exists on its own and works in a unique style and manner, yet it rests on the literary history that she clearly embraces by choosing to share this story. In this way, Greenberg both honors the classic work from which she draws her inspiration and conveys what she has drawn from these works in her own visual storytelling.
Permission to Breathe
In the world of social dynamics and sexual politics found in this story of the Brontës, there are echoes and ruminations of Greenberg’s other works. Ultimately, Greenberg deserves permission to breathe and infuse the fictitious into this historical telling as sheshapes a world that draws on, but is not restricted by, history. This is an expectation Greenberg establishes up front with her author’s note, and it leads to a story that is full of complex issues conveyed in multimodal ways. Despite its historical context, Glass Town takes on contemporary issues of gender and equality. In this way, the narrative moves forward with themes of identity and the limitations that are sometimes placed on creators—particularly those from marginalized groups and, historically, women. For modern readers, the work this graphic novel calls for is a continued honoring of marginalized voices, as well as a historic view of the voices nearly lost to oppression. In Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës, Greenberg conveys this message in the panels and multimodal ensemble found in her boundary-pushing practices. By pushing the reader and playing with narrative, she pushes on boundaries in at least three ways. Greenberg plays with barriers in the panels themselves as gestures expand beyond some of her lines (see page 27, panel 5), in her blending of history and fiction, and in her storytelling that values the stories that women have to tell. Glass Town makes a final addition to this author/artist’s oeuvre and carries its themes in modes that call for pause and careful observation.
Bezemer, J., & Kress, G. (2016). Multimodality, Learning and Communication: A Social Semiotic Frame. Routledge.
Greenberg, I. (2020). Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës. Abrams ComicArts.
Greenberg, I. (2013). The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Little, Brown and Company.
Greenberg, I. (2016). The One Hundred Nights of Hero: A Graphic Novel. Little, Brown and Company.
Hicks, F.E. (2016). The Nameless City. First Second.
Kress, G. (2000). Challenges to Thinking about Language. TESOL Quarterly, 34 (2), 337-340.
Varon, S. (2006). Robot Dreams. Square Fish