When she is not battling villains or saving others from harm, Jessica Cruz must battle her own anxieties — something even a superhero cannot escape. The DC character, famed for her affiliations with Green Lantern, finds new strength in Lilliam Rivera and Steph C.’s young adult graphic novel, “Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story.” In reimagining the origins of the young superhero, the graphic novel masterfully blends Rivera’s dynamic writing with C.’s vibrant art to craft a powerful, evocative narrative that beautifully captures the vulnerability of Jessica Cruz.
In the midst of the hubbub of Coast City, Jessica Cruz attempts to garner some control over her life. With a museum fellowship, impending college applications and the pressure to meet her full potential, Jessica questions her prospects for the future. Yet, rising xenophobia in her hometown halts Jessica’s ambitions; as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient and the child of undocumented immigrants, she fears for the safety of her family and friends.
What initially appears to be a superhero origin story packed with science fiction motifs and grand adventures lies something far more transparent and profoundly human. Under the guidance of two Aztec gods, Jessica grapples with persevering in a city fueled by hatred. Through juxtaposing the fury of one god with the empathetic nature of another, Jessica learns to balance both sides of her psyche, one that longs for revenge and one that urges her to care for her family and friends.
Feelings of isolation restrain Jessica from enacting social change; in her whirlwind of personal distress following the detainment of her father, she briefly loses the ability to advocate for others. As her world comes crashing down, the novel’s art similarly changes form, shattering like broken glass. Newfound breaks in the novel’s panels signify the turmoil imposed on Jessica’s sanity, as she finds herself surrounded by physical manifestations of her anxieties. By continuously reflecting Jessica’s internal emotional state through the use of gorgeous color and depth, C. presents the character in a new light.
“I’m tired of being afraid,” says Jessica. “Of people telling me how I should feel or act.” At the story’s climax, Jessica begins to project the complexities of her internal anger, something C. reflects through a bright red color palette. At this moment, Jessica’s frustrations peak, and her fury overwhelms her ability to feel empathy. The hatred that infiltrates Coast City certainly contributes to Jessica’s anxiety, but Rivera highlights the protagonist’s pressure to live up to high expectations in an internal monologue.
Rivera and C. unite emotional dialogue with eccentric art that pops off the page, making the graphic novel surprisingly profound. While many superhero narratives rely on action-packed sequences, “Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story” is at its most powerful when reflecting on its protagonist’s understanding of social conflict in the contemporary world.
One factor, however, that may discourage some expectant readers is the novel’s lack of supernatural elements. While this does detract from the novel, the prioritization of reaching the core of Jessica Cruz’s character is far more significant.
The discussion of socially relevant topics and the exploration of the teenage experience perhaps further distinguishes the novel from expectations, as it is both surprisingly relatable and deeply emotional in its portrayal of Jessica’s greatest triumphs and deepest fears. Yet, like all fantastic superhero origin stories, it is Jessica’s perseverance that uplifts the novel, reminding readers why superhero narratives are so beloved in the first place.
Despite the troubles that pervade Jessica’s life, her tenacity shines throughout the novel as she learns to stand up for what she believes in. As the novel’s color palette transitions from shades of red and orange to green and blue, Jessica finally lets go of her anger and, instead, harnesses her inner strength to positively change the world.
It is this sentiment that makes “Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story” a wonderful origin story for the young hero. In learning to advocate for others within her community, Jessica acquires essential traits that lay the foundation for the development of her character.
Given the uplifting, poignant entertainment that this novel provides, readers can only hope that Jessica’s story will continue on the page — supernatural or not, it is sure to unearth inspiration for those grappling with the challenges of the modern world.