Lucky Penny is co-created by one of my favorite artist and writer teams, Yuko Ota and Ananth Hirsh, who also create the webcomic Johnny Wander plus many other independent comics and collaborations. This graphic novel was published through the support of backers on Kickstarter, but the experience and unique style of Ota and Hirsch help make it a great and entertaining read especially for fans of other comics like Scott Pilgrim by Brian Lee O’Malley. I saw a lot of his influence in both Ota’s style and the story overall, a story that follows the lives of two very flawed but passionate people trying to come together and grow into adulthood while facing some seemingly unlucky events.
If you haven’t had a chance to take a look at Lucky Penny, here’s a quick synopsis:
Penny Brighton is a woman down on her luck. She lost her job, lost her apartment, and is now living in a storage shed and working for a 12-year-old boss at a laundromat. Armed with her stash of raunchy romance novels and a cat named Boyfriend, she tries to make the best of her situation. But when she agrees to go on a date with the slightly dorky and quiet Walter in exchange for free showers at the gym, will her luck begin to turn? What about the rumors of middle schoolers causing trouble, does that have anything to do with the sounds she’s hearing outside her shed door?
Yuko Ota has a great art style, one I have admired for a long time, and she brings many of her unique designs and ability to capture expressions and movement into this graphic novel. Though it is evident she is heavily influenced by Brian Lee O’Malley, Ota is a great artist in her own right who shows us through this work (and many others) that she has taken her love for O’Malley’s art and put her own spin on it to make it something new and noteworthy. Especially if we look at the scenes where Penny is dreaming, we see Ota’s style really pop in the creature designs and how she melds fantasy and reality. The giant cats take on a fantastical and monstrous look at points that gives this seemingly breezy, slice-of-live comic something new to draw people in. We also get to see in these dream sequences how Ota alters her style to fit the moment and story, creating this slow transition from her regular style to this parody of the art you find on romance novel covers.
Not to mention that her use of expressions and contrasting panels creates a story that can evoke a lot of different emotions at times. Penny’s reactions can quickly go from shocked to flirty to depressed over the course of the novel, and Ota does a great job of capturing them all while getting us to feel the mood. There were quite a few instances where I could very clearly feel the mood and tone they wanted to get across through the use of expressions. However, I think this was also made clearer through their use of values and panel pacing. Both of these factors are essential when it comes to visual storytelling, with pacing being something that can very subtly harm comics if not done correctly. Hirsch and Ota’s level of experience shows in these areas. With years of working on both their own comics and partnering with established series such Adventure Time, they’ve had time to learn what works best for landing jokes and expressing sombre moments. There were a few jokes especially at the start that would not have landed as well if it was not for the pacing, such as when Penny realized she packed away the keys to their car. There were also scenes where heavily minimalist splashes and spreads helped nail the depression Penny was facing over her problems with Walter. All of these probably wouldn’t have had the impact they did if its pages and panels were planned differently.
Aside from all the technical details, what makes Lucky Penny a great graphic novel is its story. As a lover of the romance genre, Lucky Penny felt to me like a pretty light read that also managed to include dramatic fight scenes, comedy, and some serious heart throb moments between two pretty likable characters. The story starts with the stubbornly optimistic Penny losing her job and her apartment. She manages to convince herself that living in a storage shed is a good idea and finds a job at a laundromat her friend’s family owns. Through all of this she manages to look at everything in a positive light. She’s a pretty realistic and relatable character who has real flaws under that mask of optimism. She’s embarrassed about a tattoo she got on a whim when she was younger, is unsure of herself even as she runs headlong into her problems, and is inexperienced in love even as she puts herself confidently out there and boasts about her stash of sexy romance novels.
I think this is where the main story comes into play. The underlying message behind Lucky Penny is that romance novels don’t display real relationships but we also shouldn’t be ashamed of our passions. And I think we can see half or all of this in both main characters. Penny has always been an outspoken lover of romance novels, especially the ones with the shirtless, bustier-ripping men on the covers. But when she meets someone she’s finally interested in, she begins to fall back on those ideal relationships featured in her novels, wishing for something that doesn’t exist. She wants Walter to be the initiator, the one that provides the romance in her life, but the fact remains that no relationship can be one of take alone. Walter himself is much like Penny in some ways. He may be more reserved but he can be just as passionate about his interests whether it be DnD or literature. And even though it seems he has an easy time making friends with women, dating them is another issue entirely. They both clash at this, but I think it’s partly the fact that they both respect each other and one another’s passions — Penny joining him for a DnD game and Walter talking to her about books — that they manage to work it out in the end.
However, I don’t think I would have liked Lucky Penny as much if this was all it was. This graphic novel is unique in how many different elements it combines to make an entertaining if not weird side-story. As I mentioned before, there is a pretty strong influence of Brian Lee O’Malley in this work, both in art and story. Though not as out-there as Scott Pilgrim can be, Lucky Penny does include a lot of points that become reminiscent of O’Malley’s most famous work. The main one being the fight scenes and weird mystery side-story that makes up the last half of the novel. Hirsch and Ota do a great job at melding the romance and action, creating a story that helps the characters come to terms with their weaknesses and build new strengths while managing to not be too serious in the end.
Lucky Penny is one of those graphic novels that I’ll probably be going back to a few more times in the future. I love the past work of Ota and Hirsch and I’m also a fan of O’Malley’s comics, so this was a great combination to finally have the chance to read in full. Combining nerdy passions, comedy, romance, and action, Lucky Penny is a pretty short read that’s not too heavy but manages to still have a lot to say. I hope you’ll give this graphic novel a read, and if you already have, let me know what you thought in the comments below or on my Facebook page! Stay tuned for some more reviews coming later this week!