From the one-eyed point of view of the Cyclops, Aminder Dhaliwal’s graphic novel “Cyclopedia Exotica” examines topics ranging from relationships and community building to microaggressions and casual bigotry, all planted in a world where Cyclopes and human “Two-Eyes” live among one another — at times in conflict and at others in coexistence.
In a New York Times piece discussing her sophomore graphic novel, Dhaliwal said her own experiences as a South Asian woman growing up in Canada and England heavily influenced the conflicts Cyclopes face while navigating a predominantly Two-Eyes world. Dhaliwal’s unique perspective allows each page of the graphic novel to give space to often covert and overlooked forms of marginalization while simultaneously providing humorous anecdotes and story arcs that flesh out her characters and show their value beyond their trauma.
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Dhaliwal’s Cyclopes originate in western Eurasia, where traditional Cyclops societies lived in caves and domesticated ancient sheep prior to integrating into Two-Eyes cities around the world. Aspects of the Cyclops lifestyle in Dhaliwal’s novel are drawn from real mythological depictions, with protagonists bearing shortened names of Cyclopes from ancient Greek and Chinese lore. Many of the cultural differences between Cyclopes and Two-Eyes become focal points of later harassment, like the anti-Cyclops pejorative “sheep tongue” or mantras mocking the solitary Cyclops lifestyle.
The graphic novel displays charming character designs and masterful facial expressions, as well as moments of innovation, such as the use of blurred speech bubbles to represent a character’s drunken declaration.
The book itself begins in the format of an encyclopedia, offering a methodical recount of Cyclops history. But toward the encyclopedia’s end, one of the novel’s protagonists, Etna, quite literally walks out of the comic’s frame and breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader instead. In this act of demonstrated autonomy, Dhaliwal gives Cyclopes the room to define their own history and tell their own story — an experience rarely afforded to the marginalized in our own world.
Exploring topics such as representation in the media, violence and sexual fetishization, the graphic novel roots the Cyclops experience in forms of discrimination broadly relatable to people of diverse backgrounds. Dhaliwal’s characters receive optical cosmetic treatments that she compares to double eyelid surgeries popular in East Asia, encounter protestors of Cyclops-human relationships akin to the protestors of same-sex or interracial couples and navigate accessibility barriers similar to those encountered by people with disabilities. By placing her characters in a world so fantastical yet familiar, Dhaliwal creates a reality that is uniquely Cyclops and, at the same time, palpably human.
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Still, there are some moments of Dhaliwal’s novel that fall flat. Most of her comics end with a witty punchline, and at times the satire of the novel muddies its more serious themes. Clumsy Cyclops Arj’s trauma from a childhood bully feels oversimplified, and the humorous tone of flashbacks to his bullying makes it hard to empathize with a pain supposedly fundamental to his later confidence issues.
A 17-page section at the very end of the book devoted to Cyclops Bron’s rereading of a misremembered childhood story called “Suzy’s One Eye” contains confusing underlying messages. Since Bron incorrectly recalls a more problematic version of the story, “Cyclopedia Exotica” suggests that “sometimes, there’s a story that we tell ourselves,” which might conflict with reality.
But with so much of the Cyclops experience rooted in real-life forms of discrimination, it feels reckless to present the character’s memory as false; it feels like telling a person that their experiences with discrimination are imagined or inside their own head. While this subplot might speak to Bron’s long-held disdain for his own identity — he underwent a botched surgery to make himself look like a Two-Eyes — it is a haphazard route to self-acceptance that, in the end, feels underdeveloped.
But where one or two plotlines are flawed, many more depict complicated and meaningful realities of the Cyclops experience. Etna, who did pornographic modeling, is simultaneously heralded as a pioneer of female autonomy and also the origin point of Cyclops fetishization. Vy, who, in her youth, modeled fashion items that allowed Cyclopes to look more like Two-Eyes, grapples with the legacy she left behind in search of socioeconomic security. Pol and Latea navigate dating in a world that only values them at the surface level before finding one another and bonding over their shared dreams of a new home and happy family — dreams that are rarely associated with Cyclopes in the graphic novel’s media.
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“Cyclopedia Exotica” is Dhaliwal’s second full-length graphic novel following “Woman World,” both created with Canadian cartoon publisher Drawn & Quarterly. The comic was originally serialized on Instagram, with episodic posts showcasing the day-to-day life of each character for Dhaliwal’s more than 245,000 followers.
Dhaliwal’s work finds its place in a growing phenomenon: the popularization of Instagram-based web comics. With its large audience and gallery-style interface, the social media platform has become increasingly popular among cartoonists seeking to share their content with the world.
Instagram allowed Dhaliwal immediate feedback and the ability to connect with fans in new ways compared to her work in the world of animation, where she had to navigate non-disclosure agreements on television shows like “The Fairly OddParents,” “Sanjay and Craig” and “The Owl House,” according to Dhaliwal’s interview with The New York Times.
With the recent rise in anti-Asian violence seen across the nation, Dhaliwal’s story of the othering and perseverance of marginalized communities feels especially timely, considering that “a lot of the microaggression stuff was specifically about Asians,” as Dhaliwal told the Times.
By giving a cast of characters the room to grow and explore the world on their own, navigating their identities to various degrees and in different ways, “Cyclopedia Exotica” creates layered stories relatable to readers from a variety of backgrounds. And, in rejecting the very encyclopedic structure assumed by the title, these stories break out of the desensitized world of academia, readily providing “the nuance and the humanity (that) is lost in the encyclopedias,” as writes Dhaliwal.