There once was a turtle named Chunky Rice. He had a best friend, a mouse named Dandel, who he loved very much. One day Chunky Rice decided he wasn't living where he was supposed to be, so he left his home to head for the Kahootney Islands. He wasn't sure why; he just knew he had to go. He left Dandel behind, and they were both very sad to be apart.

That simple plot--as elegant as the clear lines cartoonist Craig Thompson uses to realize his characters on the page--forms the foundation for "Good-bye, Chunky Rice." It's a graphic novel, a story told not in chapters like a collection of comic book issues, but instead offering one self-contained tale. This tale's about a turtle, a mouse, a pair of siamese twins, a bird named Merle and the man who loves him, a captain seduced by the sea and a dozen letters stuffed into bottles. It's also about relationships, about the endless search for meaning in life and how that meaning so often resides in another person.

Unless you own a heart of stone, "Chunky Rice" is one of those works of art that will sneak up on you and captivate you instantly. It might just be the best book you've never read. It's that new record from an unknown artist that stuns you with its brilliance, the movie you never even expected to be so great until you sat down in the theater and gave it a chance. It's elegant, profound and exquisitely beautiful.

The separation of Chunky and Dandel is at the heart of "Chunky Rice," but there is so much more to savor. Solomon is the guy with the bird named Merle. His memory is plagued by the death of his dog Stomper's puppies. His father made him drown the puppies as a boy, and he struggles with the echoes of their loss as well as his severed relationship with his brother Charles, who has never forgiven him for the puppies' death.

Solomon picked up Merle because his wings were broken, but there's more to it than just compassion for a wounded animal--maybe he believes that if he nurses Merle to help, he can repent for the sin of murdering those puppies in his youth. He also finds companionship in Merle, a pretty little friend who needs him and loves him with no strings attached. Merle fills a space in Solomon's heart, and Solomon is crushed when he flies away after his wings heal--and he's overjoyed when Merle returns, missing Solomon as much as Solomon missed him.

That's just one of the simple, tender relationships brought to life in "Chunky Rice." Each character's story unfolds patiently, all of the paths interweaving with one another through Thompson's clever page layouts and flashbacks. In that regard, "Chunky Rice" stands not just as an emotional tour de force, but an artistic one as well. Thompson uses every trick in the sequential art handbook to communicate the emotions of his characters. In one masterful sequence, a vast sea expanse occupies more and more of a series of progressive panels, until the pulling-back of the viewpoint reveals that the sea has become the liquid sitting at the bottom of a glass bottle. Another page depicts rows of panels surround a drawing of an active house, each row illustrating the activities of the inhabitants as they go about their daily lives.

Thompson's most effective storytelling technique in "Chunky Rice" is silence. He has a tremendous gift for shutting his characters' mouths and letting an image speak for itself. The high number of panels without dialogue make for a quick initial read, but don't abandon "Chunky Rice" so quickly. Return to the silent panels and savor them within the context of the story. It's almost as though Thompson's quiet moments allow the reader to enter into the minds of the characters on the page, identifying with their emotions and understanding them in ways no dialogue could allow. That's not to say he isn't good with words--Dandel's speeches throughout "Chunky Rice" are especially poetic and moving. But Thompson's images speak as much as his words, and in some cases communicate more than words ever could--a truly rare virtue in comics.

There's nothing especially geeky about "Good-bye, Chunky Rice." It is, however, part of a very geeky subgenre of literature, comics and graphic novels. Many of the ones you'll find in your local bookstore are focused on that great standby of sequential art, superheroes. And if it's not men in tights, it's the supernatural, the sci-fi, or the otherwise fantastical that comics and graphic novels focus upon. We've written about those before here in Essential Geek, and there's some great work to explore in the comics mainstream.

Outside of that mainstream, you'll find an exciting array of independent comics. Think of these as you would an independent film; indie comics are where you'll find storytelling and technique that takes chances, covering ground that just doesn't fit in the genre-saturated world of mainstream comics.

If you're game, "Good-bye Chunky Rice" could be just your first step into a brave new world of great reading. Amazon.Com is a great place to start exploring, especially using the recommended lists that other fans have put up. But I also encourage you to stop into your local comic book retailer and ask about their selection of independent and alternative comics. There's stack after stack of fulfilling, challenging art waiting for you, and "Chunky Rice" is just the top of those stacks.

If ever there were a work of art that needed to be experienced more than explained, it's "Good-bye, Chunky Rice." My words may actually reduce the towering achievement Craig Thompson has pulled off, so I'll quit my yappin' and simply demand that everyone reading this run out now and buy a copy of the novel. You'll be entranced and entertained, but most certainly of all, you will be moved. All of the above and much more--all from a turtle and a mouse in love.

Matt Springer has been writing professionally about genre entertainment for the past five years and has worked full-time for such publications as the Official Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine, Cinescape, and Total Movie. He co-edits the genre criticism website Entertainment Geekly (http://www.entertainment-geekly.com). His first novel, Unconventional, is the tale of three geeks who spend a life-altering weekend at a convention; buy it online at South Side Press (http://www.southsidepress.net). He's currently working to become a sitcom writer.