Kerry Byrne’s Lillian the Legend is a historical graphic novel that traces the journey of Lillian Alling from Russia to the United States and back again by way of the Yukon trail. Throughout the work, Byrne’s art is both playful and intricate. When her characters smile, they smile broadly; when they frown, their sadness is unmistakable. The most engaging art in this graphic novel, however, is that which depicts setting. Her streets of New York circa 1920 are crammed (even cramped) with fine detail and stand in stark contrast to the wide-open, almost spare, landscapes she uses to depict the Alberta prairie. Likewise, her cutaway views of things like steamships and overcrowded textile mills reveal what may be the theme at the heart of Byrne’s work: the world within a world that a knowledge of history provides.
The narrative itself is as spare as Byrne’s depcition of the Canadian countryside. For the most part, Byrne offers exposition to underscore the story that’s unfolding in each panel of Lillian’s tale. When Lillian does engage in dialogue with anyone she meets, the exchanges are brief and, more often than not, fraught with miscommunication, thus drawing attention to a second theme inherent in the narrative: that of isolation. With little means of communicating with the denizens of her adopted country, it’s no wonder that Lillian prefers the solitude of a long journey home. All she wants, it would seem, is to connect.