Zoe Thorogood is the future of comics.
Maybe that’s a problem.
In her auto-biographic novel, “It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth,” Thorogood, a 24-year-old writer and artist from the UK, recounts a dinner she attended with several prominent writers and illustrators from Image Comics. During the dinner, one of the creators — Kieron Gillen, author of critically acclaimed comics like “The Wicked + The Divine” and a landmark run on Marvel’s “Darth Vader” back in 2015 — turns to her and says, “Not to scare you, but as the future of comics, people will be looking to see what you do.” Behind Thorogood’s quick reply — “Well, I can only apologize,” she quips — is surprise. She asks herself, “I have a future?”
The future — and time in general — is something of a centerpiece for the memoir. The book is about six months of Thorogood’s life and struggle with depression. Thorogood overlays musings on her present-day social isolation — including encounters with an abused dog in her neighborhood, a trip to the United States and a vacation with her parents — with flashbacks, like her dinner with the people at Image comics while she was still a college student. Accompanying this, the true masterstroke, are frequent cutaways that examine Thorogood’s creative process as she attempts to record her life and stitch art together out of a life that is, by her admission, “falling apart.”
What’s perhaps most impressive is that the memoir is only her second graphic novel after 2020’s “The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott,” yet she’s already made a lasting impression on the comics industry. This year, Thorogood was nominated for five Eisner Awards — perhaps the highest award in comics — two of which were for her memoir (though she didn’t walk away with any wins).
In retrospect, then, it should come as no surprise that the phrase from before, “the future of comics,” is used by more than one person to describe Thorogood in the course of her memoir. It’s a phrase that has significant implications for Thorogood and her relationship with her art, a relationship that “It’s Lonely at the Center of the Earth” is fixated on.
Throughout her memoir, Thorogood uses art — mostly through the act of creating the book itself — in an attempt to grapple with her depression. Creating the memoir offers a lens for her to view her own life, one no less important for its apparent artificiality. It gives her the opportunity to examine her own past, interrogating the roots of her harmful behaviors and negative thoughts while charting their impact on her present-day life. It is equal parts an examination of and an outlet for emotion. “It’s all we know to survive,” she once said.
The book is almost intentionally difficult to parse. Thorogood’s frank examination of her depression makes for an intense read — the book contains a brief content warning for suicide and self-harm — as do the varying lenses she employs to examine her mental illness and creative process. Present alongside Thorogood’s journey are several caricatures of herself, and the looming, horrifying specter of her depression. Whether they are aspects of her personality, representations of the different levels of performance she puts on for other people and for herself, or pure artistic inventions is left open to interpretation. What they provide, however, is a means for her to examine not only her depression and suicidal thoughts but the shambling, Frankenstein’s-monster process of crafting a memoir.
Alongside her sidekicks, Thorogood attempts to scrape together a coherent work about her life. She attempts to piece together a plot, pinning her hopes on traditional bildungsroman and fish-out-of-water tropes to bring a sense of stability and growth to her life, just as they might offer structure to the narrative of her graphic novel. There’s a sense of liberation, offering her a chance to become “anything on the page,” even as her depression makes her doubt her attempts at personal growth.
Reflecting on this, Thorogood juggles a dozen different visual motifs, from the burrowing worms of her anxiety to the exhausted, almost faceless, mask she wears around other people. Gorgeous seaside backdrops are quickly replaced with cramped panels verging on collage. Elements of her internal monologue intrude upon the real world on computer screens. Color intrudes into pages, often as a simple one- or two-color accent, then recedes without a warning.
When that art is shared with her audience, the freedom she enjoys within her art dissipates. During encounters with fans, she freezes, coming to the realization that, though her art is deeply personal, she has also put it out into the world. It can be seen by others and, therefore, judged. The connection between artist and audience, a connection she seems to venerate, is also deeply vulnerable, opening the personal realm of her art to others’ expectations.
It’s an anxiety that pervades most of her interactions with readers of her work, even positive ones. At a convention in her home country of the UK, fans attest that her depictions of mental health are “relatable”; on the pages of “It’s Lonely at the Center of the Earth,” they crowd her, claustrophobic and cloying.
The notion that Thorogood is somehow the “future of comics” — supported as it is by her clear talent for storytelling and artwork — only compounds the pressure she feels. “I feel like everyone who says that is setting me up for a massive fail,” she confided to a friend.
In an article from the Guardian, Kieron Gillen expressed regret at the label he gave to her, “as it’s the sort of thing that gets under someone’s skin.” In the end, though, Thorogood defies the vulnerability and pressure that dominates her interactions with fans and surrounds her art. She opens herself to the connections with both herself and others that it embodies, writing her memoir and hoping to fight back against the loneliness and depression she faces.
Taken individually, even just one of the storytelling or artistic techniques employed in “It’s Lonely at the Center of the Earth” would be enough to sustain a graphic novel. As a whole, they are bold, almost staggering in their ambition, yet the effect is seamless, offering an intimate examination of the ways in which mental illness warps a person’s self-perception, creating layers upon layers of warring narratives — and of the art Thorogood uses to “survive.”
Daily Arts Writer Alex Hetzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.