Dealing with anger and grief in "Pilu of the Woods"
When it comes to storytelling in comic books, I am all about swashbuckling adventure and fantastical feats of derring-do. Brave heroes, larger-than-life villains, vast universes of colorful costumed characters, I love it all. Given how often I mention the likes of Superman, Daredevil, Batman, and the like, this should not come as a surprise at all.
Yet those aren’t the only types of comic stories I’m drawn to. More and more I find myself becoming immersed in comics that serve a different function; ones that explore morality, or use the medium to dive into heavier thematic material. Superhero comics can do this as well, of course, so “capes and tights” adventures and metaphorical fables are not mutually exclusive. But there are certainly comics that fall solely into the latter camp, with nary a superhero in sight.
Such is the case with Mai K. Nguyen’s Pilu of the Woods, a charming, all-ages graphic novel from Oni Press that hits stores this week. With a simple visual palette and endearingly welcoming visual style, Nguyen’s story of loss, anger, and grief resonates, and is easily accessible for readers of all ages.
The story of Pilu is very simple, and can be summed up quickly: after an argument with her sister, a little girl named Willow runs away from home into the nearby woods, where she encounters a nymph-like creature who is also trying to escape problems with her family. Together, they learn to embrace sadness and grief, along with the value of embracing your emotions.
What makes this story work so well, though, is the deliberate pace in which Nguyen reveals what led to Willow becoming so upset in the first place. Even early on, it’s clear that some tragedy has befallen her family, leaving her, her older sister, and their dad in a state of grief. While it’s fairly evident from the get-go that Willow has lost her mother, we don’t find out the significance of the woods she has chosen to escape to until much later.
The scene where Willow and her sister argue is common in stories like this, but nonetheless effective: tempers flare, each girl says things that they shouldn’t have, and Willow becomes upset. She flees into the woods that she sees as a refuge, both because it’s isolated from the outside world and because it’s a place that she feels connected to her mother. It’s here that she encounters the title character Pilu, who is a sort of fairy or forest nymph. Pilu has also run away from her family, though not because of a great loss or argument; as one child among many, Pilu feels small and insignificant, and rationalizes that since she’s practically ignored, her loss will go unnoticed.
Grief and inadequacy are the two big themes with the girls, and they are things that everyone can feel at one time or another. We see the pair become fast friends, which causes them to at least temporarily forget about their troubles, and when they come to light the duo become positive reinforcement for the other. Is Pilu real, or is she an imaginary friend Willow created as a coping mechanism? It could be interpreted either way, but it’s not a question that Nguyen dwells on. It’s left up to the reader to decide, but even then Pilu’s existence isn’t the point of the story. At it’s core, it’s about how we deal with our feelings, no matter what they are.
Throughout the story, there’s a repeated motif of small, blob-like creatures appearing in between panels. As the story progresses, these creatures grow and grow, until finally they get so big that they become quite real to Willow and Pilu. These are the monsters that are always there, Willow says, small creatures that live under the surface that she can’t get rid of. Pilu realizes that these creatures aren’t inherently bad, but instead are a part of each and every one of us; as such, Willow shouldn’t ignore them, because nobody likes to be ignored. Instead, she should embrace them, so that they can channel themselves into something positive.
It’s a simple metaphor, and one that is pretty effective in the story. It works better with Willow, as we learn more about the reason behind her anger and sadness, though Pilu imploring that “the more you ignore something, the louder it gets… nobody likes being ignored” is a good bit of character development on her part.
To Nguyen, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our feelings: if you’re sad, you’re not wrong for feeling sad; if you’re angry, it’s okay to be angry; if you’re lonely, you aren’t necessarily wrong for feeling that way either. It’s what we do with our feelings and how we channel our reactions that really matters. Suppressing your anger, for instance, doesn’t solve anything, nor does lashing out at somebody. Instead, recognizing what you’re feeling and talking to somebody about it is the most effective way to cope with overwhelming emotions.
As a fable or parable, some of the message is a bit simplistic. The idea of talking to somebody about your emotions is universal, and should not be seen as a bad message. It’s how Nguyen approaches Willow’s grief that things could have gotten tricky, but she handles it deftly. The problem with portraying grief is that nobody grieves the same way. Not everyone who experiences loss can come to terms with their sorrow quickly, or at all, nor should anyone be expected to cope the same way as someone else.
Thankfully, Nguyen never says that the way Willow and Pilu reconcile their feelings is the only way, or even more, a fail-proof way to cope. She wisely asks the reader to approach the story with a fair amount of interpretive wisdom, as her message is never delivered in a way that could be considered preachy, havy-handed, or didactic.
Nguyen handles the writing, pencils, colors, and letters, and every aspect of the written and visual storytelling works in harmony. Her character designs are, in the best way, cute, with Willow and Pilu in particular having big heads, large eyes, and short, stocky bodies. There are moments of suspense, but it never gets too scary, as the amorphous “monsters” have their own type of charm. Willow’s flashbacks with her mother are a tad washed out, with a slight orange hue that evokes both warmth and sadness. This choice is effective for several reasons, namely because it is a subtle visual cue that we’re in a different time and place, and that we feel the comfort and love between Willow and her mother.
Pilu of the Woods is a simple story told well. That’s all it strives to be, and for that it excels. The thematic material is handled with a deft touch, with a universal message that never feels overwrought or preachy, and the welcoming visual aesthetic makes it a pleasure to read. It’s an easy read, in that you can finish it quickly, but the weightier themes of the moral make it a great story to share with people who are grieving or experiencing overwhelming emotional trauma. Because of that, Pilu of the Woods is the best kind of all-ages book: one that everyone can enjoy, and that everyone can learn from.