Friday, September 23, 2022

Zoc by Jade Khoo

Some books are influenced by other books - that's what we expect, most of the time. But some are more influenced by other things - especially in a visual medium like comics, where the influences of other visual media can be immediate and clear.

Jade Khoo's debut book, Zoc, is strikingly influenced by animation; I would say most deeply Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, in both her character designs and larger story structures - the way she draws landscapes and the ways her narrative turns to landscape to rest between story scenes. I see online that she works in animation, so I don't think that's just my eye: I think it's the way she thinks and lays out least this time. (The way anyone does their first big professional work is not necessarily the way they'll go on in the future.)

Miyazaki is a huge influence for a lot of younger animators and cartoonists, but Khoo is closer to the model than most. She doesn't just use Ghibli-esque moments or motifs; the whole story and structure of Zoc feels like a new or lost Ghibli movie - which, again, is a major achievement for a young creator. Zoc is a mostly quiet, character-focused work, with lots of stillness and silence in it - there are larger things happening outside the narrative, but this book is mostly about one girl, walking - trying to figure out what to do with her life and how to best use the things she can do.

Zoc is French, like her creator. She's still in school, but old enough to be responsible. Khoo's Ghibli-esque style makes her look young, but my guess is that she's in the high-school equivalent: just a year or two away from the end of this phase of school, at the point where next steps and life paths and purpose start to loom larger. At the beginning of the book, we see her with a career counselor, and she has only one vague thought about the future path of her life.

She has a special ability: water is attracted to her hair. It accretes and is pulled along, in a growing, gelatinous mass, like she's some kind of highly-specialized katamari. She can do it on purpose, to move masses of water from one place to another, but it happens all the time no matter what - in the first scene we see her walking along, the rain gathering behind her, until a passer-by complains. To release the water, she needs to cut the end of her hair: cut the water away to let it settle into its new place.

Zoc can pull what seems to be tons and tons of water; this isn't a book about examining or defining powers, so we don't know how much. But we think she could move an entire river, if she wanted to. Maybe a medium-sized lake. We have no idea what would happen if she went to the sea.

She wants to use that power as an adult. She wants to have a job that somehow is "dragging water with her hair." Everyone around her, obviously, thinks this is not a viable path.

But Zoc puts up ads in her town, to see if she can get jobs. And, quickly, she does get one: the town of Nemours has just been flooded. She's hired to take the waters away. For reasons the book doesn't go into, she doesn't take those waters to a lake or river, but across country to near the town of Marsier - maybe that's just where the best lake or river is. That journey will be long, taking several days and covering about a hundred miles. And she's dragging a whole flood behind her the whole time.

Along the way she meets a boy of about her age: Kael. He has a special ability as well: when he's around someone in pain, he catches on fire. He's been driven out of his home town for obvious reasons; he's even more solitary than Zoc. But he walks with her for the rest of her journey.

The narrative is closely focused on Zoc. We only see pieces of the outside world when she does: coming into towns, talking to wandering minstrels (drawn as colorful animal-headed people, in another Ghibli-esque touch), meeting other walkers. We hear that the countryside is divided about her work, that she's become famous, that the flood dragged behind her has had some not-good effects on the lands she's dragged it through.

In the end, she makes her delivery. She's ready to go back home. She's not sure if this is the right way to use her special ability. But things happen, and a new idea, a new model, comes to her.

Zoc is a lovely, fully-formed story. It can be read to have a message, but it's a story rather than a fable or parable, set in a self-consistent world and about real people. I'd recommend it particularly to anyone intrigued by the Ghibli influences: Khoo is good at the quietness and calming camera of that style. This book may be organized into a Young Readers section by some libraries or stores, but there's nothing childish about it: what can be more grown-up than the question of what purpose your life has?

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