5 Worlds: The Cobalt Prince. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Random House, May 2018. Paperback: ISBN 978-1101935910, $12.99. Hardcover: ISBN 978-1101935897, $20.99. 256 pages.
Epic fantasy is a balancing act. On the one hand, its make-believe settings tend to be rule-governed and to strive after internal consistency, as if some kind of voluntary constraint were needed to hem in and discipline the pure exercise of fancy. We have to know that the characters, however magical, won't be able to do just anything they please, and that the worlds won't simply change in mid-story to suit the storyteller's whims (anyone who has ever played Dungeons & Dragons with a very whimsical DM knows how annoying that can be). Tolkien's Middle Earth has set a standard: that high fantasy worlds are to be approached with something like the self-discipline of historical fiction, even if that kind of discipline belies the very term fantasy.
On the other hand, epic fantasy series, as they sprawl, often reveal new things about their worlds that shift the terms of our understanding. They elaborate, giving us more and more backstory that impinges on, or changes the stakes of, the story we're reading. Multi-volume fantasies, as they ravel out, tend to disclose (or discover) more about origins or antecedent conditions, uncovering deep foundations that may generate new problems. Even Tolkien, who crafted a history of Middle Earth before he publicly shared that world, famously said that The Lord of the Rings "grew in the telling," which I take it means that the book (ultimately trilogy) ended up drawing in more and more of the mythic backstory as he had privately envisioned it.
Of course, there are also epic fantasy series written without the same strict dedication to consistency: say, Zelazny's Amber, with its odd, shifting rules. Such shifting or feinting may betray Tolkien's disciplined mode of high fantasy, but I confess I enjoy twisting, ramifying plots that reveal more of a world to me, even when the twists undermine what I thought I knew about the world at first. Consider the way Rowling's Harry Potter turns out to be a multigenerational saga set in a world more layered, and corrupt, than the first book shows, or the way Le Guin’s Earthsea, in its later books, dismantles its own patriarchal foundations, or the way Jeff Smith's Bone, in the seventh-inning stretch, gets more tangled and complex. In a satisfying fantasy epic, we will come to believe that all the complications were foreordained and fit perfectly.
Besides self-consistency, then, I do enjoy the continual deepening of fantasy worlds. I bet a lot of readers do. As we travel the worlds, we learn, even as the heroes do, how complex the worlds truly are. That, I think, is the effect that 5 Worlds is going for.
5 Worlds, a collaborative graphic novel series that launched last year, does not quite persuade me that everything has been worked out, or that everything fits. Its cluster of worlds is complicated, even baroque, yet its plot is a breathless, rocket-propelled blur. I reviewed the first volume, The Sand Warrior, here recently, and complained that the tale suffered from tangled plotlines, a frantic pace, and too much downloading of mythic backstory. The second volume, The Cobalt Prince, is due out this week, and guess what? It has all those same qualities. The Cobalt Prince does not "solve" the "problems" of The Sand Warrior, and there are moments where its storytelling gets muddled. However, the book is splendidly imaginative, enough so to make its problems into virtues—which is to say that I'm glad to be revisiting 5 Worlds and exploring its universe. There's a lot going on here, plot-wise, and the book is a delirious exercise in graphic world-building. Thankfully, it remembers to round out and humanize its characters as it goes, and so attains a poignancy that the first volume lacked. If The Sand Warrior seemed promising, The Cobalt Prince is grand.
By way of recap (here I'll crib from my first review), 5 Worlds is a science fantasy co-scripted and designed by cartoonist Mark Siegel and his brother Alexis Siegel and then further designed and drawn by three other cartoonists, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Its plot revolves around an ecological catastrophe that threatens five rival yet interconnected planets. These are Mon Domani, the so-called Mother World, and her four satellites, each with a distinctly different culture. All five worlds are drying out and dying of heat death. Per an ancient prophecy, this disaster can be averted by relighting the long-dormant "Beacons” on each world, but not everyone believes the prophecy. Rivalry among the worlds gets in the way of cooperative problem-solving, and a shadowy adversary known as the Mimic (a sort of Dark Lord) exploits this rivalry in order to sow invasion and war. Our heroine Oona, an unfledged “sand dancer” of Mon Domani, seeks to relight the Beacons and stop the Mimic, with the help of a resourceful urchin named An Tzu and a sleek android called Jax. The first book centered on Mon Domani, but The Cobalt Prince moves on to other worlds: Toki, home of the despised, racially Othered "blue-skins," and Salassandra, home to diverse religious orders. Though Toki is the main theater of action, the plot caroms from place to place.
When first I saw The Cobalt Prince, I noted Jax's absence from the cover—and sure enough Jax gets sidelined along the way, as if his story were one too many for this book. A plethora of new characters more than fills his space, and The Cobalt Prince becomes a roll call of unfamiliar names assigned to familiar archetypal roles: Master Elon, a mentor and outlaw; Ram Sam Sam, a cute ectoplasmic critter; O'Zirg, a shopkeeper; Anselka, a healer; and Magda, another mentor, this one a Master Yupa or Obi-Wan type who possesses essential knowledge. These figures become helpers or donors to our heroes (in folklorist Vladimir Propp's sense). They also bring new info, as, in good fantasy fashion, The Cobalt Prince dives into fresh elaborations and disclosures. So, even as this second book explains and solidifies things that happened in the first, it also changes the terms of the first, complicating what was already tricky. Along the way, it changes how we think of Oona (and how she thinks of herself) and makes Oona's sister Jessa, a morally ambiguous figure in the first book, into the linchpin of the plot. The sisterhood of Jessa and Oona turns out to be this book's core.
Narratively, The Cobalt Prince, like The Sand Warrior before it, is a mixed bag. On the plus side, the book's elaborations are emotional as well as clever, giving it more gravity than its predecessor. Also, I like the way its plot presses on the issue of racism as both personal animus and systemic oppression. In this story, distrust and division are keyed to skin color and culture, and at times racist hatred or fear threatens to misdirect our heroes. The challenges of transcultural understanding lend the frenetic, pinballing story greater depth. However, some of that subtlety gets fumbled along the way to a grand finale: a gathering of forces that, in its rigging, reminds me of The Hobbit's Battle of Five Armies, though sadly it comes across less clearly. The book, finally, stacks up too many plot points at once. A frenzied fight between giant, godlike avatars is particularly confusing, as those beings are possessed first by one side, then by the other, blurring the action's meaning. I had to reread some pages two or three times to understand what was happening, to whom, and why. When I finally did "get" it, it was rather glorious, but on first reading I was a bit lost. An anticlimactic but necessary "epilogue" does the work of sorting things out and springboarding readers onward to the next volume. I know I'll be there, waiting to see what complications the plot delivers next.
Like its predecessor, The Cobalt Prince is beautifully designed, drawn, and colored, a rapturous outpouring of images. The five-person 5 Worlds team continues to be a collaborative miracle. The book wears its visual influences on its sleeve: a temple scene on Salassandra recalls Moebius; a chase scene involving starships and an "escape pod" cannot help but evoke Star Wars. Miyazaki looms large: treks through a post-apocalyptic "wasteland" echo the opening of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, while the final battle invokes Princess Mononoke's giant Forest Spirit but also its sense of ecological renewal, as the dead wasteland blooms green again. 5 Worlds, then, is frankly an exercise in allusion and synthesis. The reason I not only tolerate but savor these familiar elements is that, against all odds, the 5 Worlds team makes everything seem of a piece visually.
5 Worlds continues to be a grand experiment that seems ever in danger of flying off the rails. I hope the books to come will slow down, find their feet narratively, and deliver their action more clearly. I look forward to seeing how the team's world-building and piling-up of ideas comes together as an epic whole. Will everything fit perfectly? Of course I can't say yet, but the journey is head-spinning.
Random House provided a review copy of this book.
The Dragon Slayer. By Jaime Hernandez. TOON, 2018. Hardcover: ISBN 978-1943145287, $16.95. Softcover: ISBN 978-1943145294, $9.99. 40 pages. A Junior Library Guild Selection.
Jaime Hernandez, one of the world's great cartoonists, is as lively and influential a comic book artist as you could hope to find. He has changed many readers' and artists' lives. His work on the Love and Rockets series (1981-now), in tandem with his brothers Mario and especially Gilbert Hernandez, proved that there was life and juice and relevance in the serial comics magazine, beyond even what many fans of the medium had dared hope. The punk, Latinx, and queer-positive aesthetic of L&R, along with its serious, in-depth storytelling and formal risk-taking, made for a revolution in comics, and Jaime Hernandez has deservedly been called one of the masters of the medium. The Dragon Slayer is not his first comic for children, as he's done a few short pieces for children's anthologies. Nor is it his first comic based on folklore: seek out for example "La Blanca," his version of a ghost story he heard from his mother, which he did for Gilbert's all-ages anthology Measles No. 2 back in 1999 (Gilbert too has made folk and family lore into comics: dig his "La Llorona," from New Love No. 5, back in 1997). Moreover, children and childhood memories are essential to Jaime's work in Love and Rockets. But The Dragon Slayer is Jaime's first real children's book.
As Hernandez told Publishers Weekly's Calvin Reid in an interview published this week,
I have kid [characters] in my adult comics, but they play by my rules. Now that I’m writing for children, I’m playing by their rules. I was a little nervous because now I’m speaking directly to kids and to the parents who will let them read [the book].
So Dragon Slayer is something new for him. In fact it's a quiet collaboration: the book's back matter tells us that Hernandez read through many folktales to find the three that he wanted to adapt, and in this he was commissioned and helped by TOON's editorial director and the book's designer, Françoise Mouly. Mouly's team also deserves mention: in this case, designer Genevieve Bormes, who supplied Aztec and Maya design motifs that enliven the book's endpapers and peritexts, and editor, research assistant, and colorist Ala Lee. Like most books in the TOON Graphics line, Dragon Slayer includes some discreet educational apparatus, in the form of notes and bibliography -- more teamwork. Further, the book comes introduced by prolific scholar and children's author F. Isabel Campoy, whose collaborative book with children's author and teacher educator Alma Flor Ada, Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection (2006), is credited as one of Hernandez's sources. Campoy and Ada are key contributors here. (Another key source, albeit not as clearly announced, is John Bierhorst's 2002 collection Latin American Folktales.) All this is by way of packaging three 10-page comics by Hernandez, which are a delight, and are over too soon. I could read book after book like this from Hernandez -- the premise fits him beautifully.
Hernandez has said that he liked the "wackiness" of these stories, and they do have that absurd-but-perfect, unquestionable quality of many folk tales: a sense of symbolic rightness and fated, almost-inevitable form in spite of the seeming craziness of their plots. Things happen that are preposterous and unexplained but just seem to fit, to click, because of the tales' use of repetition, parallels, rhythmic phrasing, and ritual challenges: stock ingredients, in anything but stock form. These folkloric patterns make the tales complete and rounded no matter how nonsensical they might appear at first. In crisp pages that rarely depart from a standard six-panel grid, Hernandez delivers the stories straight up, without any rationalizing or ironic distance, in clean, classic cartooning that communicates without breaking a sweat. Jaime is a master of seemingly guileless and transparent, but in fact subtle and artful, narrative drawing, and The Dragon Slayer does not disappoint.
This has been billed as a "graphic novel," but it's no more a novel than other splendid TOON books like Birdsong, Flop to the Top, The Shark King, or Lost in NYC. What it is is a charming comic book that whets the appetite for more. Hernandez's cartooning benefits from the book's folkloric and scholarly teamwork, but the main thing is that the comics are marvelous. The title story, a feminist fairy tale with a light touch, focuses on an unfairly disowned youngest daughter who slays monsters and solves problems: a real pip. "Martina Martínez and Pérez the Mouse" (adapted from Ada's text) is an absurd story of marriage between a woman and a mouse, until it becomes a wise fable about panic and grief. "Tup and the Ants" is a lazy-son story in which the (again) youngest child proves his mettle with the help of a hill's worth of hard-working ants. All three comics surprised me and made me laugh out loud.
I could call the book an anthology of lovely moments. It suffers no shortage of arresting moments -- panels that leap out:
But what really makes these panels lovely is that there is no grandstanding in the art, only a terrific economy in visual storytelling: a streamlined delivery that carries us far, fast. Context is everything, and the book is not so much excerptable as endlessly readable.
In short, The Dragon Slayer is a great book for Jaime Hernandez and for TOON, and one of the best folktale and fairy tale-based comics I've seen. I confess myself puzzled by its labeling as a TOON Graphic, which in the TOON system implies an older, more experienced comics reader, as opposed to TOON's Level 1, 2, and 3 books for beginning or emerging readers (I don't see this as a more complex comics-reading experience than, say, some of the Level 3 titles). But I do appreciate the oversized (7¾ x 10 inch) TOON Graphics format, which gives Hernandez a larger space to work in, more like that of a comics magazine. That suits his drawing and pacing. In any case, The Dragon Slayer is a sweet, short burst of smart, loving comics, and comes highly recommended.
PS. A Spanish-language edition, La Matadragones: Cuentos de Latinoamérica, is also available in both hardcover (ISBN 978-1943145300) and softcover (ISBN 978-1943145317), priced as above.
TOON provided a review copy of this book, in its English-language version.
Archival Quality. Written by Ivy Noelle Weir, illustrated and colored by Steenz. Oni Press, March 2018. ISBN 978-1620104705. $19.99, 280 pages. A Junior Library Guild Selection.
Archival Quality, an original graphic novel out this week, tells the story of a haunted museum: a ghost story. It also tells about living with mental illness. The protagonist Cel, a librarian struggling with anxiety and depression, takes a job as archivist of a spooky medical museum that once served as an asylum (my friend, medical archivist and comics historian Mike Rhode, should check this out). The catch: she has to live in an apartment on the premises and do her work only in the dead of night. Soon she begins to witness... happenings that she cannot explain. Her boss, the museum's curator, and her coworker, a librarian, tiptoe around her, knowing more than they will say. Cel, who lost her previous job due to a breakdown, is understandably perplexed and triggered by their evasions, and by the fact that no one seems to believe her reports of odd doings. She begins to have frightful dreams: flashbacks that evoke the shadowy history of women's mental health treatment. The plot, which like many ghost stories gestures toward the fantastic (as Todorov defined it), finally veers toward the outright marvelous as Cel investigates the case of a young woman from long ago whose presence still lingers about the place. Cel, as she works to solve that case, is by turns fragile and angry, defensive and determined—a complex character, as is the curator, at first her foil, later her ally. The story takes quite a few turns.
To be honest, Archival Quality's title and look did not prepare me for its uneasy exploration of mental health treatment—or rather, the social and psychiatric construction of mental illness. As I read through the novel's first half, Steenz's drawing style struck me as too light, undetailed, and schematically cute for the story's atmosphere of updated Gothic. Cel, with her snub nose, button eyes, and moplike hair, reminded me strongly of Raggedy Ann, and in general Steen's characters have a neotenic, doll-like quality. The settings seemed too plain to conjure up mystery and dread; the staging seemed too shallow, with talking heads posed before blank fields of color or swaths of shadow, lacking particulars. Steenz favors air frames (white borders around the panels, rather than drawn borderlines) and an uncluttered look. This did not jibe with my expectations of the ghost story as a genre.
But as the plot deepens, and Cel's dreams and visions overtake her, Weir and Steenz together generate suspense. The pages deal out a number of small, quiet shocks:
Further, Steenz's sensitive handling of body language brings the characters, doll-like as they are, to life. The book becomes tense, involving, and, as we say, unputdownable.
Weir and Steenz's back pages tell us that the two enjoyed a close working relationship, and you can tell this from the story's anxious unwinding. This is unusually strong storytelling, and a complicated, coiled plot, for a first-time graphic novel team. Clearly, Weir and Steenz are simpatico artistically—and ideologically too, I think, sharing a progressive and feminist outlook that shapes cast, character design, characterization, and plot.
I will admit that not everything about Archival Quality works for me. The plot, on the level of mechanics, seems juryrigged and farfetched, that is, determined to pull characters and elements together for the sake of symbolic fitness, without the sort of realistic rigging that the novel seems to be striving for. In other words, certain things happen simply because they have to happen. Further, some elements of the story, rather big elements I think, are palmed off in the end because Weir and Steenz don't seem to be interested in working out the details. At the closing, I had the feeling that a Point was being made, rather than a novel being rounded off (to be fair, I often react this way to YA fiction, even though I know that didacticism is crucial to the genre). Still, Archival Quality, behind its coy title, offers a gutsy exploration of mental health treatment, an eerie ghost story, and characters who renegotiate their relationships with credible human frailty and charm. A most promising print debut, and a keeper.
See Hatfield, comics and children's culture scholar