Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s art is pure romance. She conjures pastel-colored dream worlds that braid together fantasy and science fiction, inviting discovery as new technology and old magic combine. Her aesthetic is soft without becoming indulgent or saccharine. In the critically acclaimed graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, written by Mariko Tamaki, Valero-O’Connell’s illustrations portray teen angst and heartache with earnest and unbridled tenderness. With her new anthology, Don’t Go Without Me, Valero-O’Connell taps into the complexity of love, longing, and human connection.
The book contains three standalone stories: “Don’t Go Without Me,” “What Is Left,” and “Con Temor, Con Ternura.” Each tale is an emotional exploration of the ways in which we connect and how our collective selves are the sum of every interaction.
In the titular story, two lovers get separated in a parallel dimension; the second story tells of a technician stranded in space, with someone else’s memories as their only company; the last recounts a community preparing for a prophecy that may lead to its destruction. An intense air of melancholy suffuses the book as Valero-O’Connell pairs love with loss — a nudging reminder that one comes with the other. In “Don’t Go Without Me,” the lovers must give up memories of each other in order to find one another again. By the time they do reunite, though, they may not know each other at all. In “Con Temor, Con Ternura,” the locals celebrate as they wait for what may be their demise, using the time to reacquaint themselves and remember lives lived and shared. It’s bittersweet in the truest sense.
Memory is a running theme in Valero-O’Connell’s narratives and illustrations. Her palette of pinks, peaches, and other pastels, offset with blacks and grays, makes everything bold and pronounced. Each image is highly detailed and facial expressions take on an intense, almost haunting quality. Turning your eyes away, you may feel like a forlorn lover trying to reconstruct every facet of your paramour’s face, only to become delighted and bewildered upon looking back by how little you remembered and what you didn’t see the first time around.
The softness of Valero-O’Connell’s aesthetic is integral to this effect. She forgoes sharp edges for curves, each page and panel containing a swirling cosmos where hair curls and seafoam become indistinguishable, and speech bubbles are the color and shape of smoke. Characters have rounded faces, feathered hair, and yearning eyes. Panels that are barely inches deep are precisely inserted, occasionally sitting atop a full-page image, mirroring the multifaceted complexity of love at the core of the book. The complete collection is definitively charming, as good romances are. It inspires a feeling of wistfulness, like a chaste kiss you can still feel on your lips. The ghost of it lingers, as well as the promise of another.
Don’t Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (2020) is now available from Shortbox.