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Review of Shake Girl

By Kathrerine Shaeffer
Stanford University Graphic Novel Project. Shake Girl: A Graphic Novel. Edited by Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey. Stanford University, 2008.
WHEN I MEET Tat Marina, the first thing I notice is her eyes, with their piercing pupils and watery whites. But she has not been crying. Marina’s eyes are irritated because she cannot blink easily. They look out from a face that has been damaged so badly that it looks like a crude drawing. (Eric Pape "Faces of the Past and the Future")

Shake Girl: A Graphic Novel is the Winter 2008 product of Stanford's Graphic Novel Project. In six acts, it tells the story of a "shake girl" (whose name is never given in the course of the novel) living in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge regime. The novel follows her coming of age as a young woman and "karaoke dancer" and her treatment at the hands of "Frankie," the rich and powerful man who at first seems the answer to a better life.

Though Shake Girl's name is not used in the novel itself, the story is for the most part a fictionalized biography of Tat Marina, whose story has been combined with that of other young Cambodian women. The quote that begins this review is from the first lines of an interview with Marina conducted by Eric Pape, reporter and member of the Stanford graphic novel class; it was Eric who proposed using the events of Tat Marina's life as the plot for his class's project ("Afterword"). If you pay careful attention, you can see that some of Shake Girl's lines are taken directly from this interview (181).

Shake Girl is an ambitious project, but it is also a bit of a Frankenstein's monster of a work. The 210 page graphic novel was produced by fourteen Stanford students over the course of six weeks. Eight students worked as artists on the project, while the script was collaboratively written by three. Students also worked on editing, layout and research (Johnson and Kealey "A Note From the Editors" 215). At times, the conflicting styles of an eight-illustrator team become quite jarring. The first part of Act III, for example, shows Shake Girl on her first date with "Frankie" in a light-hearted artistic style that contrasts perhaps too sharply with the shaky and somber linework that is dominant in the art until this point (60). This "light-hearted" style also shows a probable manga influence, especially in the eye design and the way that the characters show the facial expression of surprise:

Figure 1. Shake Girl, p. 60. © 2008 Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey

While the writing of the project was also performed collaboratively, the stamps of the different writers are not so visible as those of the different artists throughout the book, and both narration and dialogue is written consistently in the same concise style.

Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey sum up the overall success of the project in a few lines in their Editors' Note:

Throughout the process, the subject matter - this particular Shake Girl - and telling her story with heart, accuracy, and complexity was what kept us going. The end product is not perfect, though considering the time limitations and the collaborative nature of the project, it does indeed seem miraculous to us. We're very proud of this work. (216)

I am inclined to agree with the editors' implied assessment. Though Shake Girl is a rough work, its roughness does not diminish the emotional impact of the story it has to tell or obscure the fact that the authors treat their subject matter with compassion and respect on every page.

In terms of narrative presentation, the diary-like tone of the first-person narrator serves the work well. Shake Girl tells the story of her life and her country straightforwardly, without expressing anger or asking for sympathy. Her language is simple and unpretentious, but at times its very simplicity seems to become a kind of pretension: it suggests that the young narrator has somehow, through her early experience of pain, transcended the need to express it. Though by all accounts Marina herself behaved stoically in the aftermath of her attack, this patient suffering somehow transforms the Shake Girl in the novel from a sympathetic character to a symbolic one, making her read at times as a stand-in for the ravaged Cambodia rather than a person in her own right.

Shake Girl herself is enthusiastic and imaginative, frequently slipping into hopeful musings that are represented visually in the book. In the early sections, Shake Girl's passion is wrapped up in dancing, and as she dances she pictures herself in fanciful costumes (12). The transitions from plain clothes to dancing garb are performed only in the artwork, melding reality and fantasy as Shake Girl goes from a simple dress in one panel to elaborate dancing gear, complete with headdress and bangles, in the next.

Figure 2. Shake Girl, p. 90. © 2008 Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey

One of the most interesting visual moments in the book occurs when Shake Girl, having been imprisoned in a hotel room by her supposed lover, writes a letter and throws it out of her window in the form of a paper airplane.

Figure 3. Shake Girl, p. 152. © 2008 Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey

We watch as the airplane undergoes a panel-by-panel transformation into a bird, which lands and is immediately beheaded by an unknown figure (148-155). The transformation is simply rendered and is, at heart, a beautiful way of representing hope in a futile world, but the heavy-handedness of the symbolism is not integrated well into the rest of the story. Unlike the other moments when Shake Girl lapses into dream or daydream, the flight of the letter has no subtlety. This moment ultimately detracts from the spiritual and emotional significance of the surrounding narrative sheerly because it tries too hard to achieve the level of the profound; the transparency of its symbolism conflicts with the simple honesty that is one of the work's greatest strengths.

In the beginning of Act V, however, on the heels of the letter's flight, the novel achieves one of its most effective visual successes. Shake Girl, having been left naked and captive in her lover's apartment, is shown curled up in a fetal position (159). Her curved, nude back is shown to the reader three times in three panels with differences so minute that they are most likely reproductions of the same original drawing (though they are not perfectly identical). Each panel has no background: Shake Girl is trapped and alone in three boxes of white. The repetition, combined with the blank background and the tiny differences that tease the eye, create a chilling sense of suspended time.

Figure 4. Shake Girl, p. 159. © 2008 Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey

In some cases, the art's rough quality becomes an asset in and of itself. Eric Pape in his interview said that Tat Marina's face was so badly damaged it looked like a "crude drawing," and this description is literalized in Stanford's graphic novel. All images of Shake Girl's face after the attack are rendered in simple, "crude" linework. In a two-page sequence (202-203), Shake Girl peers at her melted face in a mirror for the first time, and we see her ruined face only when she sees it. The inhuman, lopsided image that stares back at her at first seems like a child's inaccurate drawing, and there is a moment of terrible, unspoken delay as realization dawns: the very crudeness, the seemingly inaccurate depiction of a face's expression and proportions, reflects not a childish incompetence in drawing but the new reality of the girl's appearance.

Figure 5. Shake Girl, p. 202-203. © 2008 Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey

Several hundred copies of Shake Girl were published, and the full text of the graphic novel is available online for general consumption. The online incarnation of the work, which its now its most accessible version, was originally designed as a "preview" of the novel's book form, and certain formatting decisions do prevent it from achieving ideal readability on the screen. The online Shake Girl is designed to emulate the layout of the hard copy book, with pages presented in two-page spreads. While this allows the reader an effective preview of the "look" of the book, it is not an ideal form for a book substitute. The size of the pages makes some of the text difficult to read, and the small reproductions of both text and art can cause considerable eye strain when read on a computer monitor.

On the site's home page, there is a line of text promising the reader that, though the book as a whole may take a few minutes to load when first accessed, each individual page will take almost no time to load. This proved to be true in my experience, and one of the most pleasant technological features of the book is the ease with which the reader can "turn the page," using either the left and right keyboard buttons or the on-screen page buttons provided for that purpose.

Shake Girl is not a self-contained work; it is inseparable from the materials that surround it. Especially in its online presentation, the graphic novel situates itself as part of a continuing series of initiatives to raise international awareness of violence towards women in Cambodia. The Shake Girl website includes a "Donate" page with links to LICADHO, or the Cambodian League For The Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, and the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center. The News page links to Krista Mahr's 2008 Time Magazine article,"Comic Relief," which gives a brief overview of the production of comics in Cambodia from the 1960s to the present.

A detailed account of Tat Marina's attack from February of 2000 is available on the website for the non-profit newspaper The Cambodia Daily (Smith and Kimsong "Acid-Laced Vengeance").

The story behind the creation of Shake Girl is as interesting as the book itself, and is in large part the driving force for the book's promotion. In its 115th episode, the Stanford Graphic Novel Project includes a report of Shake Girl's development ("Doing Justice for Shake Girl"). Dan Hirsch's narration of the class's story is interwoven with clips from interviews and recordings of the students discussing their project. The podcast creates an evocative picture of the tensions and excitements that arose within the class as the students worked toward completing their graphic novel. The focus of the piece is on the ethical ramifications of telling "someone else's story," in this case a perspective not only in another person's voice but in a voice from another culture.

Shake Girl is not the first socially conscious comic, nor is it the first that has been collaboratively produced, but as a university-affiliated, socially aware and collaboratively produced graphic novel, Shake Girl may indeed be the first of a new breed. In its creation, then, Shake Girl has a claim to originality, but its story is not new. Tat Marina's story, for one, was highly publicized at the time of her attack, and it was told a number of times in news reports and interviews. Tat Marina's story, though ultimately unique and ultimately hers, was in a sense not new at the time it was first reported; the "phenomenon" of acid attacks has been and is a continuing problem in Cambodia, and Tat Marina's story echoes that of many others.

The true value of the Shake Girl project come not from what it is but what it does. Shake Girl may not be "new" to its readers or even, sadly, particularly surprising. We know, after all, that cruelty needs no excuse, that young people cut off from access to protection become vulnerable to those who should protect them and that justice, more often than not, is the prerogative of people who can afford it, especially in those places where justice is a scarce resource. Shake Girl may not be new, but it is nonetheless shocking. Shake Girl is shocking in the way that every story of mindless, unjustifiable atrocity is always shocking when we stop to pay attention to it. It is this stopping, this paying attention, that Shake Girl demands, and it is this demand that makes Shake Girl important.

Works Cited

Hirsch, Dan. "Doing Justice for Shake Girl." The Stanford Storytelling Project. Episode 115: Telling Other People's Stories. 2008. http://storytelling.stanford.edu/node/4

Mahr, Krista. "Comic Relief." Time Magazine. 10 April 2008. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1729550,00.html.

Pape, Eric. "Faces of the Past and the Future." Open City. Fall 2006. http://www.garella.com/rich/eric/tatmarina.htm.

Smith, Jeff and Kim Kimsong. "Acid-Laced Vengeance." The Cambodia Daily WEEKEND. 5-6 February 2000. http://www.camnet.com.kh/cambodia.daily/selected_features/acid_laced_vengeance.htm.

Stanford University Graphic Novel Project. Shake Girl: A Graphic Novel. Edited by Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey. Stanford University, 2008. http://www.stanford.edu/group/cwstudents/shakegirl/.

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