I was utterly charmed by Jen Wang’s collaboration with Cory Doctorow, In Real Life (which is one of our Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth!), so I was delighted to hear about her most recent webcomic, The White Snake.
This sparely illustrated and tantalizingly plotted story opens with an accident—or is it a murder? A zoo employee is found dead on the floor of the reptile house with a pair of bite marks in his neck, a slithering blood trail leads to an open emergency exit, and several highly valuable snakes are missing, including the albino king cobra, which has been in the exhibit since 1954. Detective Tate is on the case, and though he initially suspects an exotic-animals smuggling outfit, he begins to sniff out someone far stranger.
Meanwhile, the mysterious Lily shows up for a visit with her court-appointed counselor, who is trying to help her piece together her past. She was discovered wandering naked in a park with no recollection of who she is or where she came from. Wang uses plenty of snake-like details to suggest that Lily is, in fact, one of the missing snakes, so it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that here. And besides, she deploys those moments so delightfully well that it would be a shame not to mention some of them.
Lithe Lily carries a snake plant into her new apartment, wears a large hat that surrounds her face like a hood, wraps herself around a pillow for comfort, and peels her clothes off when getting into the bath, leaving them crumpled on the floor like molted skin.
Tate’s investigation drives the plot for sure, but wide-eyed Lily’s exploration of her identity and her discovery of basic human emotions is just as engaging. Her transformation into a human becomes a cheeky stand-in for a coming-of-age story: she gets a job, navigates interacting with people, figures out how to turn her knowledge of the world into workable skills, strives to understand herself and her feelings, and establishes meaningful boundaries. Wang does an especially great job of balancing Lily’s desire to fit in seamlessly with her peers and her unabashed choice to stay true to herself, even if that particular version of herself retains some of her more unusual serpentine qualities.
Wang’s splendidly sketchy, monochromatic artwork is invitingly full of open white space, and the pastel green tone, which seems to highlight Lily’s innocence, is a gentle, pretty contrast to the murder mystery at its core. At the moment, there are only two chapters of Lily and Detective Tate’s story to read, but Wang updates with complete chapters rather than individual pages, so each update is substantial. And if you’ve finished reading The White Snake, there are plenty more webcomics on Wang’s site to peruse.