Laundry and ghosts have more in common than you think. Setting out an immersive, believable world, “Sheets” is small-town story with a spooky undercurrent.
Written and illustrated by Brenna Thummler
Marjorie Glatt feels like a ghost. A practical 13 year old in charge of the family laundry business, her daily routine features unforgiving customers, unbearable PE classes, and the fastidious Mr. Saubertuck who is committed to destroying everything she’s worked for. Wendell is a ghost. A boy who lost his life much too young, his daily routine features ineffective death therapy, a sheet-dependent identity, and a dangerous need to seek purpose in the forbidden human world. When their worlds collide, Marjorie is confronted by unexplainable disasters as Wendell transforms Glatt’s Laundry into his midnight playground, appearing as a mere sheet during the day. While Wendell attempts to create a new afterlife for himself, he unknowingly sabotages the life that Marjorie is struggling to maintain. Sheets illustrates the determination of a young girl to fight, even when all parts of her world seem to be conspiring against her. It proves that second chances are possible whether life feels over or life is over. But above all, it is a story of the forgiveness and unlikely friendship that can only transpire inside a haunted laundromat.
“Sheets” takes place in a lakeside town that you get to know well by the end of the book. Brenna Thummler sets it out in soft pastels and dense textures, from brick wall to rickety staircase to shiny, freshly mopped floor. It’s a little rough around the edges – uneven fenceposts and unswept leaves and shops that have been around too long without a fresh coat of paint. There’s loads of scene-setting detail, telling more story the more you look. But more than anything, there’s that feeling of space, occupied and unoccupied, lived-in and abandoned, that’s essential for a good haunting story.
The characters that populate the town are just as fascinating. Highly individualized, with expressive faces and believable body language, it doesn’t take you much more than a panel to figure out what’s going on with them. The clothes are also great, hinting at facets of character without being obvious about it. (I’m still thinking about Marjorie’s thrift-store windbreaker.)
Of course, the ghost world we come to know over the course of the book turns all of this on its head. One of the rules of being a ghost is that, without a sheet to outline you, you have no substance, no presence – so everybody we see in the Land of Ghosts is essentially a sheet with eyeholes. There’s no difficulty telling everybody apart, though – some accessorizing does the trick in that department, and our main ghost, Wendell, with his big gestures and forlorn eye-holes, always stands out.
In contrast with the daytime town as we know it, the ghost world uses a limited palette – a more saturated purple, and a ghostlier blue. It feels sparse, like an in-between space, but it also has range. An interlude sequence – a story told by Wendell – is a real stunner. Set out in what looks like linocut, its storybook, puppet-theatre quality adds even more scope to an already beautiful book.
It happens that, when the story opens, Wendell is still navigating the reality of being a ghost. There’s a complex social landscape, not to mention a lot of rules, and he talks a big talk, trying to lie and self-aggrandize his way into some kind of acceptance. It doesn’t work, and he takes to haunting Marjorie’s laundromat more as an escape than anything. This is where things get rough for Marjorie, who’s trying to run the family business while dealing with her checked-out father.
The story has unmistakable momentum, with the financial pressure on Marjorie and her father forming part of, but not all, of the impetus. There’s also some emotional baggage here, which we get hints of as we move forward. Thummler makes use of short flashback sequences, delivering the substance of Marjorie’s backstory without being heavy-handed, and these take on more and more meaning as we get more and more context.
Of course, being a ghost is the very definition of emotional baggage, and Wendell and Marjorie figuring their stuff out together is the main draw of the book. It happens a little quickly, with a way of saving the laundromat essentially coming out of thin air, but the charm of one of the final scenes goes a long way toward erasing any feeling of bathos. Similarly, the comeuppance of our obvious villain, Mr. Saubertuck, feels inevitable, but he does serve his function as a force moving the plot forward and keeping everything on track.
It bears noting that a lot of this reminded me of the game A Night in the Woods — so much so that I wondered if the charm of that game was rubbing off on the comic as I read it. But I think it’s just that the component parts they share are so potent — tragic pasts and fraught presents, all in a small town where everybody knows everybody. Still, I like it when disparate pieces of art seem made for each other, and there’s nothing stopping you from double-featuring them as part of a sombre but enlightening weekend.
All told, “Sheets” is a lovely read that sneaks up on you, crafting a beautiful and recognizable world that’s full of personal history. Its appeal extends into the YA range, but really it’s for anybody who appreciates depth, emotionality, and a Halloween-toned sense of fun.