Despite its title, British writer and illustrator Isabel Greenberg's The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is not mere history, with its assiduous accounting of dusty facts, but is instead a compendium of funny, sad and surprisingly moving fables from the pre-history of a world that exists only in Greenberg's febrile imagination — one that bristles with capricious gods, feckless shamans, daring quests and, of course, doomed love.
We meet a man of the frozen "Nord" as he falls in love with a South Pole woman, only to find that some mysterious force prevents them from ever coming into physical contact with one another. Through a series of tales (many of which are told by the Nord man as he sets out into the wider world to seek his fortune as a traveling storyteller), we learn the nature of that force, and how these two improbable lovers came together in the first place.
The story of this world's creation, for example, involves a proud, vindictive bird-headed god and his two humanlike children (who — in a nice touch — wear fake beaks tied around their heads to appease their vain father). Greenberg's sprawling, sardonically funny mythscapes intersect Biblical tales at oblique angles: A jealous brother murders his gentle sibling. The building of an enormous tower earns the enmity of the gods. A great flood cleanses the world of life.
Again and again, Greenberg insinuates her characters into these stories, twisting and weaving their familiar narratives together to suit her grand purpose.
Her bold visual style has been called childlike, but a more apt word would be primitive: Her tight illustrations, shot through with streaks of color, evoke the imagery of Inuit art and the Bayeux tapestry, seeming to float in a sea of thick black ink. With wit and expressiveness, she captures both astonishing spectacle (i.e., the roiling chaos of world creation) and the achingly human (i.e., a sidelong glance).
A bit more about that wit: Everyone we encounter in The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, from the rebellious teenage goddess who creates humanity to the Wise Old Crone who defeats a giant with cleverness and sausages, evinces a bracingly modern sensibility that belies the historical era: ancient warriors celebrate victory by high-fiving one another, and the whale that swallows our storyteller hero admonishes him, "Please stop running or I'll puke you up!"
Greenberg loads her panels with background gags and visual elements that slyly flesh out her storytelling — should you happen to notice, for example, when and why the young goddess dispenses with wearing her fake beak-mask, you'll come to understand something important about her character.
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is ambitious and impressive enough as a feat of world-building, but it's a good deal more than that. From its gods and ghosts and monsters, a rich and palpably human tale emerges — a sad and unshowily beautiful love story that lands with an emotional impact you likely won't see coming.