Thirsty Mermaids. By Kat Leyh. Gallery 13 / Simon & Schuster, 2021. ISBN 978-1982133573, $US29.99. 256 pages, hardcover.
Briefly, Thirsty Mermaids is an absolute ass-kicking delight of a graphic novel, a riotous yarn about three loopy mermaids who, thanks to a drunken binge and some iffy magic, get stranded on dry land in human form. In what starts as a sort of screwy Disney parody, the three mermaids, Pearl, Tooth, and Eez, find themselves part of our world, marooned at a seaside tourist trap (very much Spring Break territory) and taken in by a kindly bartender, Viki, who soon becomes part of their friendship “pod.” What ensues is a series of raucous escapades, ever escalating, as the three mermaids struggle to pass as human, make sense of human bodies and customs, and find landlubber jobs, all while hoping that the spell that humanized them can be reversed so that they can return to the sea.
Author Kat Leyh is known for co-writing the Lumberjanes series and for the exquisite middle-grade graphic novel Snapdragon (reviewed here recently). I guess Thirsty Mermaids is what happens when she is not working specially for young readers. Make no mistake, this is a ribald comic, full of drunken humor, F-bombs, and, often, naked mermaids. So, this is Leyh working blue. From the start — a great drunken belch that shatters the Romantic loveliness of the undersea setting — we understand that our three freewheeling, hard-drinking mermaids have no Fs left to give. From binge to hangover to regrets, this is a story of them screwing up, a sort of R-rated comedy of friendship amid bad behavior (Leyh's original working title for it was Merbitches). Oddly enough, though, the whole thing feels quite innocent and good-natured. If the book has a potty mouth, there is not one mean-spirited bone in its body. Sure, I wouldn’t hand it to a ten-year-old (and, really, the hardcover format and high cover price seem designed to steer kids away). Then again, I wouldn’t try to wrest it from a ten-year-old’s hands either. I can imagine certain teenage readers, especially those raised on Disney, delighting in its raw humor and affirming characterizations.
If the story of Thirsty Mermaids starts out as a romp, it gains in depth and sympathy as it goes. While Pearl and Tooth take on human jobs and relationships, Eez struggles with depression and confusion, separated as she is from the source of her identity and her magic. From near-constant chuckles to a nervous empathy with the characters, I found myself pulled in, deeper and deeper — ultimately into what turned out to be a layered story with a climax so awesome that I literally mouthed expletives when I got to it. No lie! What I observed of Snapdragon applies here: an inclusive, queer-positive ethos; vivid, gutsy cartooning; a mix of irrepressible drawing and narrative subtlety. Yep, that’s Kat Leyh for you. Man, is she good.
Thirsty Mermaids isn’t “for" children, but it’s a charming adult comedy in dialogue with childhood stories. Its pages are inventive, elastic, color-drenched, and wild — they hit that impossible sweet spot between rambunctiousness and elegance. I can’t think of a recent comic that has given me more spontaneous pleasure.
Mamo #1-3 (of 5?). By Sas Milledge. BOOM! Studios / BOOM! Box. July-September, 2021. $US 4.99 per issue. 44-56 pages each.
I don't ordinarily review periodical comic books, in the sense of single issues aimed at the direct market, on KinderComics, especially when the stories are still in progress, but for Mamo I must make an exception. Sure, this fantasy about two young women sharing magic and solving problems together is yet another witch-themed story for young readers (of the type I've been covering lately, here, here, here, here, and here). Sure, its storyworld and its visuals are decidedly Miyazaki-esque, with particular nods, I think, to Miyazaki's versions of Kiki's Delivery Service and Howl's Moving Castle. Genre-wise, this has become familiar territory: I'm convinced that Hayao Miyazaki is the key to much of what is happening in contemporary fantasy comics (see for example my comments on Mark Siegel and company's 5 Worlds or Tillie Walden's Are You Listening?). I see many homages to his work even when attending small-press festivals. In that sense, Mamo is not new. But Melbourne-based artist Sas Milledge really delivers the goods here. This is a nuanced, breathtakingly beautiful story, with smart, insinuating characterization, a deliberate, thought-through, but not mechanical approach to magic, and a healthy respect for mystery, both the secrets of the heart and of the world. It really is something, and I can't wait to read it to the end.
I won't go into detail here (I expect to come back to Mamo when it is collected), but, briefly, the story takes place in and around an agrarian village, a place that may coexist with the modern world yet seems firmly preindustrial and bucolic. The setting seems vaguely European, ambiguously Irish or Scandinavian or Nordic (with perhaps a nod to Finland's Tove Jansson). But the ambiguity may be important. Protagonist Joanna Manalo, or Jo, is a Filipina. Her co-protagonist, the book's leading witch, boasts an Irish name, Orla O'Reilly. Their village includes a variety of people. Jo and Orla's relationship is the mainspring of the plot: Jo enlists Orla's aid to counteract a seeming spell or curse that overlies the village. Orla's grandmother, the Mamo of the title, once served as the village witch but seems to have died, while yet leaving behind traces of herself that contain powerful and vexatious magic. Jo and Orla must travel round the village and environs to find spots haunted by Mamo, spots of weirdness and trouble that need to be calmed. So far, Mamo is less a character than the precondition of the whole story, but exactly why her spirit is still unsettled remains a mystery, as does the nature of Orla's seemingly ambivalent relationship to her grandmother. As Orla and Jo circle round the village, marking a map to chart their progress, the two women develop a wary yet increasingly warm friendship (and perhaps something more?), and each reveals secrets.
Two things really impress me about Mamo. One is the sense of atmosphere conveyed by Milledge's gorgeously colored pages (produced in collaboration with color flatter Belle Murdoch). The environments here remind me of Kazuo Oga's beautiful art direction and backgrounds for various Studio Ghibli films, including many of Miyazaki's: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki, and so on. The mingled colors and shadows, the play of shadow over color and over forms, results in a transporting loveliness. Even the darkest moments are dappled with filtered sunlight, a delicious effect that Milledge can't seem to get enough of. I'm reminded of Tillie Walden's bold way with colors, as well as, of course, the quietly lovely countryside of Totoro.
The other thing that gets me is, again, Milledge's understanding of magic. Mamo has its own theory or philosophy of magic, which emphasizes giving, accepting, and mutuality: the sharing of power (power shared is power doubled). Magic means relationships, and that means constraints and obligations, not just unbridled power. Favors and connections are everything. The idea that magic comes with obligations and limits isn't new (I picked something like this up from reading Le Guin's Earthsea, long ago). But Milledge seems to have thought this issue over very carefully. Logically, her philosophy of magic provides the ideal setting for the story of a budding relationship; really, the relationship and the magic are the same thing. I get the feeling that magic, in Mamo, is a meaningful system built out of mutual regard and strong feeling. All this is conveyed without pedantry or tedious exposition. Many fantasy writers have tried to work out a system of magic that preserves a sense of mystery and wonder without giving way to an anything-goes sort of sloppiness. Milledge does this better than most, the result being a very grounded, though no less wondrous, type of fantasy.
Mamo is the kind of comic book that overcomes my habit of trade-waiting: a floppy series that compels me to break down and just buy the next issue, already! A warmly humanistic, implicitly queer-positive, inclusive fantasy, it's also an aesthetic delight. I recommend checking it out.
Snapdragon. By Kat Leyh. First Second, 2020. ISBN 978-1250171115, $US12.99. 240 pages.
I favored Snapdragon to win this year’s Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids (though, um, another book ended up winning). Of all the recent comics about witches that I’ve reviewed here, Snapdragon strikes me as the most sure-handed and persuasive, as well as the richest. It shares with most of the other “witch” books a progressive, inclusive, queer-positive ethos and Bildungsroman structure. Snapdragon, though, brings even more to the table, without ever overcramming or pushing too hard. Unsurprisingly, the book has a utopian, welcoming, vibe, but author Kat Leyh stirs in so much complicated humanness that the results never seem pollyannish or schematic. What we get is a winningly complex cast of characters, queer and trans representation that is central to the story while being gloriously unflustered and direct, spooky supernatural details that resolve into unexpected affirmations, and, above all, vivid and confident cartooning – one terrific, nuanced page after another. I was just a few pages in when I realized that I was in the hands of a master comics artist.
The book has guts. Its first panel delivers a closeup of hungry birds tearing into carrion (roadkill), then zooms out to Snapdragon, or Snap, barreling through the woods on her bike. “Our town has a witch,” Snap’s opening captions tell us. “She fed her eye to the devil. She eats roadkill. And casts spells with the bones…” So, by way of opening, Leyh leans into the creep factor:
But Snap, a fierce young girl, isn’t having it; the town’s rumors of a witch are “bull,” she thinks. “Witches ain’t real,” her skeptical thoughts go, as she brings her bike skidding to a halt in front of the witch’s (?) home. But soon enough Snap has joined forces with this supposed witch, a quirky old woman named Jacks who cares for animals but also salvages and sells the bones of roadkill to collectors and museums. Is Jacks a witch? Does she wield real magic? The book remains coy about this until halfway through, but Snap quickly bonds with Jacks, who welcomes Snap into her work, mentors her in animal anatomy and care, and becomes a sort of avuncular (materteral?) queer role model.
That bond helps Snap claim her own implied queerness – that, and Snap’s friendship with Lou/Lulu, an implicitly trans schoolmate labeled as a boy but anxious to claim her girlness. All the book’s relationships are worked out with care, including the crucial one between Snap and her overworked but wise single mom, Vi. Leyh’s characterization is slyly intersectional, including sensitivity to class (Lu and Snap are neighbors in a mobile home park, a detail conveyed with knowing matter-of-factness). Almost every character has more to give than at first appears – the sole exception being Vi’s toxic ex-boyfriend, a heavy whose sudden reappearance at the climax is the book’s one surrender to convenience. Everything else feels truly earned.
Snapdragon is the kind of book that, described in the abstract, might seem to be playing with loaded dice. In less sure hands, its story could have come across as pat and programmatic, a matter of good intentions as opposed to gutsy storytelling. But, oh, Leyh is absolutely on point here; her mix of irrepressible cartooning and narrative subtlety, of bounce and insinuation, is a wonder to behold. Snap and Jacks are great characters, and in good company. Their world feels real and vital. Leyh infuses their story with grace, understanding, and nonstop energy. I’ve read this book multiple times and expect to read it again. I’d read sequels, if Leyh wanted to offer any. And I’ll follow her whatever she does.
Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters. Book One. Written by Chris Samnee and Laura Samnee. Drawn by Chris Samnee. Colors by Matthew Wilson. Lettering by Crank! (Christopher Crank). Oni Press, August 2021. ISBN 978-1620107843, $US12.99. 112 pages.
Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters has a premise that was just waiting to happen, one that somebody, somehow, had to get around to: a postapocalyptic children's fantasy about fighting giant, kaiju-like monsters. There's a touch of Jack Kirby's Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth about this, and maybe a touch of Pacific Rim too. Co-creators Laura Samnee and Chris Samnee describe Jonna as a story they "could share with [their] three daughters," something created "for them" but also "inspired by them"; the comic, though, will appeal to action-starved fans of Chris Samnee's work on such superhero comics as Thor the Mighty Avenger, Daredevil, Black Widow and Captain America (or his current martial arts fantasy with writer Robert Kirkman, Fire Power). The heroic Jonna is a wild, monster-clobbering girl with a whiff of Ben Grimm or Hellboy. She comes across as untrammeled, almost feral, yet delightful. When Jonna goes missing in a ruined, kaiju-ravaged world, her older sister Rainbow – the more fretful, responsible one, naturally – tries to find her, then corral and (re)civilize her. Jonna, though, remains a unpredictable force of nature. You don't need to know much more; the first half dozen pages give you whopping big monsters, and plenty of synthetic worldbuilding. There's a sense of the familiar about all of it, but novelty and excitement too.
By now it's almost a cliché to speak of Chris Samnee's masterful storytelling and sheer chops (I've paid tribute before). It is true that I will read just about anything drawn by him, especially when it's colored by Matt Wilson, his steady collaborator for more than a decade. Granted, I got impatient with Fire Power within a few issues. Though I dug its bang-up start, Fire Power strikes me as a shopworn White martial arts fantasy à la Iron Fist; it's tropey, and conceptually a bit tired. I've stayed with it, however, because of Samnee and Wilson's visuals, and it has become my monthly dose of old-school craft and loveliness, balancing breathless action with an Alex Toth-like elegance. Samnee manages to be polished and rugged at once; his drawing offers classicism and grace, but with a terrific infusion of energy. Jonna, I think, may be the best thing he has ever done: the pages sing, and roar, and astonish with their gusty action and playfulness. Freed somewhat from the stylized naturalism of mainstream superhero comics (though that skill set is still very much in evidence), Jonna cartoons with a joyful freedom. Wilson's coloring, too, is eye-wateringly good.
All this is my way of saying that Jonna is craftalicious and affords plenty of gazing and rereading pleasure after the initial readerly sprint. But what does it amount to? On some level, it remains a kind of superhero comic, not only because Jonna packs a mean punch but also because a couple of other characters discovered along the way, Nomi and Gor, are seasoned fighters as well (Nomi boasts powerful prosthetic arms). So, this is a slugfest. But there's more: moments of poignancy, sisterly anxiety, and Jonna's weird, ferine energy and charming social cluelessness. And the Samnees allow a certain melancholy to creep in; the world of Jonna is a fallen one, full of sundered families, lost loved ones, bereavements. In one scene, a ragtag group of survivors huddles around a fire, and their dialogue says a lot: My whole family gone. My home destroyed. My village destroyed. Everything destroyed. Without pressing the point, the story has a genuinely apocalyptic feel that, to me, reeks of COVID. That it manages to be cockeyed and funny at the same time is no small feat.
Though billed as a children's story, Jonna is just as much for grownups. The book (originally serialized in floppy form) splits the difference between direct market-oriented cliffhanger series and middle-grade graphic novel, so it's courting multiple audiences. Moreover, a theme of "families and belonging" (as the Samnees put it) threads through the book, familiar from many an animated family film, and like such films Jonna offers adults a kind of reassurance even as it aims for kids. That is, it offers childhood as a cure for ruin and heartbreak. The basic ingredients are familiar – there's nothing revolutionary about this tale – but I'm at a time in my life where seeing kids wallop monster does me a world of good. This first volume (a second is promised for Spring 2022) sets up some mysteries, not least the mystery of Jonna herself, and doesn't answer very many questions, but I enjoy paging through it and rereading it. In fact, I enjoy it more than I can say.
PS. The excellent magazine PanelxPanel, by Hass Otsmane-Elhaou and company, devoted a good chunk of its May 2021 issue (No. 46) to Jonna, and includes a revealing interview with Chris Samnee. Plus, the issue contains other articles on depictions of children and on young readers' graphic novels. Well worth checking out!
An Embarrassment of Witches. Written by Jenn Jordan and Sophie Goldstein; art by Sophie Goldstein. Coloring assistance by Mike Freiheit; calligraphy by Carl Antonowicz. Top Shelf, 2020. ISBN 978-0593119273, $US19.99. 200 pages.
Lately I've been reviewing Bildungsromane about young witches in training (here, here, and here). I thought An Embarrassment of Witches would be one of those, but it really isn't. Yes, it's a coming-of-age story, but it's also a grad school comedy about the experiences of two fairly new adults (not young adults in the adolescent sense) whose loved ones are high-powered academics or wannabes living in a rarified intellectual world ripe for satire. It happens that this world is one in which magic is commonplace, one where you can go to grad school to study "metamystics," and where shopping malls include businesses like Taco Spell and Aleistercrowley & Witch. But the story does not focus on learning witchery or spellcraft. It deals with applying for jobs and school, with internships, and with tense people having relationships at a bemusing transitional moment in their lives. It reads like a Friends-style sitcom combined with an academic novel, but is not as acrid as that might sound. Tonally, it reminds me of John Allison's splendid college comedy, Giant Days; its character writing is just as adult and just as piquant, and it conveys a similar sense of benign absurdity.
Briefly, the story focuses on two best friends and roomies, Rory (Aurora) and Angela, and how their friendship is sorely tested by the moves they have to make toward autonomous adulthood: feckless Rory walks away from her supercilious boyfriend and begins looking for a new direction in life, while Angela takes an internship supervised by, of all people, Rory's mother, a famed and fearsome academic. Lies, evasions, and secrets result in a complicated tangle. Eventually, Angela and Rory have to renegotiate the terms of their friendship on a more adult basis. The plot reveals the unreliability and stumbling humanity of just about everybody, without demonizing anybody (characters who at first appear flat turn out to have depths). The book is smart, funny, and endlessly inventive, and scatters little comic jewels on almost every page. Rory and Angela are knowingly and subtly written, with great attention to their brittleness and quirks and, especially, the mostly unspoken complexities of their relationship. This is witty, human, open-hearted stuff.
Art-wise, An Embarrassment of Witches is a formally inventive knockout. The character designs are sharp and distinctive, the visual worldbuilding is a hoot, and the book looks like no other. Goldstein dispenses with gutters and borders, favoring jampacked full-bleed pages in which the panels rub right up against each other. The results are a bit overwhelming due to sheer density, but that jibes with the book's emphasis on complex social dynamics. It also makes the book a delight to page through again and again (the disorienting, Escher-like cover is just a hint of the pleasures and challenges inside). The limited color palette — two purples, a near-turquoise green, celeste blue, and a kind of mellow yellow — may sound iffy in the abstract, but works brilliantly in practice, making the book into a cohesive world of its own. All this is to say that the wittiness of the story is matched by an outpouring of visual wit. In short, An Embarrassment of Witches is a full-on delight.
Witchlight. By Jessi Zabarsky. With coloring by Geov Chouteau. RH Graphic/Random House, 2020. ISBN 978-0593119990, $US16.99. 208 pages.
I guess you say that this review is part of an occasional series (heh).
In an unnamed land—a marvelous, culturally syncretic fantasy world—two young women undertake a magical quest and, as they go, learn how to care for one another. One of them, Lelek, volatile and enigmatic, is a witch who has lost half her soul. The other, her newfound friend (well, at first her kidnappee) Sanja, is determined to help find it. Love blooms between them—a matter of blushing shyness at first, but then owned and enjoyed with a winning matter-of-factness. As they travel, Lelek and Sanja scare up money by challenging local witches to duels, but often end up learning from those same witches; their travels uncover woman-centered communities and hints of matriarchal lore and magic. The larger culture hints at witch-hunting and misogyny, and this leads to a harrowing twist in the final act, but also, by roundabout means, to the resolution of a mystery and a ringing affirmation of Lelek, Sanja, and everyone they’ve befriended en route.
Originally published by Kevin Czap’s micro-press Czap Books in 2016, Jessi Zabarsky’s Witchlight is a gorgeous and soulful feast of cartooning in a clear-line but vigorous, rounded style (which reminds me a bit of Czap’s own). It grows more confident in its linework and layouts as it goes. Beautifully colored by Geov Chouteau, the pages sing with an assured minimalism and harmony. I suppose the backstory and conflicts could be established more firmly—the plot might be clearer—but on the other hand, I enjoyed immediately diving back into the book to better understand its dreamlike premises. The book’s feminist, antiracist, and queer-positive ethos are a part of that dream and arise organically from the world Zabarsky has created; she uses her secondary world to imagine a better one. The utopian vibe is complicated by emotional and social nuances and an earned sense of loss and struggle. More than anything, Witchlight radiates a sense of love, offhand intimacy, and the thrills of self-discovery. Zabarsky clearly delights in her characters. She is a great cartoonist, with another graphic novel promised from RH Graphic by year’s end. I can't wait!
About eight weeks ago, I announced that KinderComics would be “taking a roughly six week-long break.” Every time I say something like that, I sigh—and sigh again when, eventually, tardily, KinderComics returns. So, okay, here I go again:
Scheduling pressures under COVID, the endlessness of preparation and grading in my online teaching, and a looming sense that the world is going wrong, that it could explode any day—these things have been getting in my way. I admit I often consider closing this blog and moving on. Only reading and writing pleasure draws me back. So, let me switch gears and get down to the stuff that matters:
5 Worlds: The Red Maze. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Random House, May 2020 Paperback: ISBN 978-0593120569, $12.99. Hardcover: ISBN 978-0593120552, $20.99. 240 pages.
Who is the author of Five Worlds? This sprawling adventure series is the work of what seems to be an impossibly harmonious five-person team; somehow, the results comes across as the work of a single hand. Aesthetically, the series is gorgeous, a real feat of cartooning. Structurally, it’s tricky, with a modular, five-book shape, each book color-coded and focusing on a different world and different puzzle to solve (or secret to uncover, or McGuffin to find). Politically, it’s timely, with ever more obvious allegorical broadsides against Trumpism, neoliberalism, and xenophobia; in this progressive fantasy, world-building goes hand in hand with topical commentary that feels, as I’ve said before, on the nose. Alongside its familiar genre elements—the hype invokes Star Wars and Avatar: The Last Airbender as comparisons, but Miyazaki hovers over the whole thing too—Five Worlds conjures the anxieties of our times, and scores palpable hits against “fake news,” noxious right-wing media, climate change denial, and the shamelessness of greed-as-doctrine. KinderComics readers will know that I’ve been fairly obsessed with this series, reviewing Volumes One, Two, and Three in turn, and that I found the third, 2019’s The Red Maze, the most successful thus far at balancing genre convention, fresh discovery, and political relevance. With the latest volume, The Amber Anthem, the series has reached its fourth and penultimate act, and appears to be barreling toward a big finish. It’s actually a bit of a blur.
In The Amber Anthem, the McGuffin is a song—the anthem of the title—and the story’s climax depends on thousands of voices lifted in song together, in a vision of peaceful yet powerful resistance that suggests real-world analogies: the Movement for Black Lives, and the recent surge in street protests despite COVID. (The book must have been written and drawn before that surge, and before the pandemic too, but its spirit of protest makes such analogies irresistible.) Here the dominant color is yellow, and the world is Salassandra, a planet briefly glimpsed before but now the center of the action. Our heroes, Oona, An Tzu, and Jax Amboy, once again seek to relight a long-quenched “beacon” in order to save the Five Worlds from heat death and environmental collapse. The Trumpian villain, Stan Moon—a host for the dreaded force known only as The Mimic—redoubles his attacks, even as Oona, An Tzu, and Jax take turns in the spotlight. The plot, as usual, is complicated, a tangled quest. Ordinary Salassandrans alternately help and hinder that quest (many having been persuaded that our heroes’ mission means ruin for the “economy,” and so on). The climax depends upon bringing together people of “five races.” Jax, a sports star, joined by a beloved pop singer, uses his celebrity to draw those people together—a handy metaphor for the way pop culture may provide opportunities for activism and community-building when official politics becomes hopelessly corrupt.
Along the way, Anthem clears up several nagging mysteries, in particular the backstory of An Tzu (whose body has been, literally, fading away, book by book). I expected as much. Each new volume of Five World has delivered some big reveal or transformation for one of the heroes; now, with An Tzu’s history disclosed, the series seems poised for its finale. There’s a sense of unraveling complications here, yet of a tense windup at the same time. I confess that the big reveals here, though some of them came out of left field, didn’t leave me gaping or even happily stunned. Instead, I found myself jogging, not for the first time, to keep up with the frantic plot. Reveries and remembrances, sorties and missions, switchbacks and betrayals: it's a lot.
The climax, though, is beatific: a shining vision of pluralism and collaboration and a lyrical evocation of “many strands…interweaving.” It's a triumphant close, but a corking good cliffhanger in the bargain, introducing a new moral dilemma and setting the stage what promises to be a breathless final volume. I’m keen—Five Worlds has been an annual stop for me, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.
Five Worlds is a marvel of coordinated effort and cohesive design; again, its author-in-five-persons communicates like a single voice. Its world-building is lovely—I would happily pore through sketchbooks showing the collaborative process behind these books. That said, I’m starting to wonder whether the series’ complex rigging, breakneck plotting, and moral certainty are robbing it of some degree of complexity (as opposed to structural complicatedness, which it has in spades). The effect of Five Worlds on me, so far, has been like that of an action movie with soul, but its compression and momentum have not allowed for the sort of complex characterization that marks, say, Jeff Smith’s Bone, whose deepest characters, Rose Ben and Thorn, are sometimes at odds and go through hard changes. Five Worlds gestures toward the hard changes, and has enough soul to tend to the hearts and minds of its heroes, but everything feels a bit rushed. Despite the loveliness of the proceedings, then, at times the generic tropes come across as just that (Stan Moon, for example, speaks fluent Villain). When stories are ruthlessly streamlined, often what we remember are the clichés.
I hope not.
I look forward to the last chapter, The Emerald Gate, which I hope will bring everything—world-building, political urgency, and layered characterization—into balance one last, splendid time. When I open up the fifth and final volume, I’ll be holding my breath.
The Tea Dragon Festival. By Katie O’Neill. Oni Press, ISBN 978-1620106556 (hardcover), 2019. US$21.99. 136 pages.
I read The Tea Dragon Festival during an early morning idyll, propped up in bed with a cat curled up on my lap (our cat Max likes to hang with us when we read). That sounds about right — it’s that kind of book: tranquil, comforting. A purring cat, basking in a morning ritual, is a pretty good stand-in for the semi-domesticated “tea dragons” that populate its world. In fact, here on KinderComics I described this book’s predecessor, The Tea Dragon Society (2017), as an “idyll full of greenness and life” and a “cat-lover’s daydream.” The same goes this time.
The biggest problem I had with this sumptuous book was reading it by diffuse sunlight: O’Neill’s occasional layering of dark or muted colors posed a challenge to my eyes; I couldn’t make out certain expressions and overlapping shapes. I ended up having to turn on my reading lamp and point it directly at the pages — then the expressions popped. So, I recommend reading The Tea Dragon Festival by strong light; then you’ll really get to see O’Neill’s ravishing color work. When well-lit, the book fairly glows.
Cover blurbs describe Festival as warm, charming, and gentle. Again, that sounds right. The story skirts pain and hardship; though it evokes some subtle melancholy, its characters are not burdened with difficult ethical decisions or hard losses. The vibe is green, dreamlike, and utopian (with the now-expected traces of Miyazaki). The one potential source of serious conflict appears and disappears in a handful of pages. In fact, the book is so quiet and anodyne that it’s quite a surprise when a fight briefly breaks out:
Like its predecessor, Festival takes place in an eco-topia: an idealized rural culture defined by caring community and respect for traditional crafts. The story, again, focuses on a growing girl who is learning a craft — in this case, cooking — and her interactions with dragons — this time, not just miniature tea dragons but also a full-blown, shape-shifting, often humanoid dragon. This dragon, Aedhan, considers himself the appointed protector of the girl, Rinn’s, village, but has been waylaid by a magical, eighty-year sleep, from which he has only just awoken. He is filled with regret for the years he has missed. Rinn takes responsibility for helping Aedhan get to know her people and acculturate to village life — so, once again, the story revolves around the sharing of memories, as Aedhan moves from outsider to trusted villager. Though longer and more ambitious than the first book, then, Festival takes up the same concerns and exhibits the same qualities.
I like O’Neill’s work for emphasizing, as I’ve said before, loving connection and tender gestures. But I have to repeat another observation too: this book’s delicacy left me wanting more complication, more trouble. I wanted a harder story, something that would show the characters’ values when put to a fiercer test. It’s easy to love the world O’Neill has created, one of sharing and openness, indeed a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist utopia. Clearly, she herself loves the world and its characters. I particularly like the inclusion of signing (American Sign Language) as a plot element, which sharpens O’Neill’s already impressive sense of (in this case literal) body language. The story, though, gives no sense that the apple cart has ever been upset, or the people’s equanimity challenged, by the ordinary work of survival. O’Neill seems to prefer quieter dilemmas, smaller stakes. Festival is sweet and affirming, but its plot evanesces soon after reading, leaving behind an impression of a personal wonderland, exquisitely tended and mostly about the pleasure of its own rendering.
I’ll happily read more by O’Neill: she’s a gifted cartoonist and book artist. Each time I read her, though, I become terribly aware of my own cynicism. Harrumph!
Coming-of-age stories about young witches have definitely become a genre in young readers’ graphic novels: a means of blending fantasy and Bildungsroman, and of telling stories about gender and sexuality, sometimes about other forms of difference, and about resistance versus conformism. Generally, these witch stories offer gender-conscious, often queer-positive, fables of identity. Post-Harry Potter, but often rejecting the Potter novels’ emphasis on passing in the mundane world, they also seem influenced by Hayao Miyazaki and the magical girl franchises of anime and manga. Here are reviews of three graphic novels about witches that came out, one after another, last fall:
The Okay Witch. By Emma Steinkeller. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1534431454 (softcover), Sept. 2019. 272 pages, $12.99.
A girl named Moth, a misfit in her Salem-like town, discovers that she comes from a line of superhuman witches, her mother is more than three centuries old, and her family is entangled in the history of the town and its witch-hunters. Moth’s grandmother has retreated into a timeless, otherworldly utopia for witches, while her Mom has embraced the mortal world and sworn off witchcraft. Grandmother and Mom argue over Moth’s destiny, while Moth seeks her own way. There’s an intriguing story hook in this middle-grade fantasy, which poses an ethical dilemma about retreating from, versus engaging, an imperfect world — and suggests an allegory of America, in which women of color (Moth and family) expose and challenge the culture’s white-supremacist and patriarchal origins (the witch-hunters). However, The Okay Witch seems tentative and underthought, hobbled by blunt exposition, shallow characterization, and patchy drawing. Steinkellner’s characters are designedly cute and expressive (her style reminds me of Steenz), and she seems to grow into the work as she goes, but the results are unsteady. The breakdowns and staging of action sometimes confuse, the settings lack texture and depth, image and text do not always cooperate, and distractions such as crowded lettering and jumbled perspectives dilute the impact. The novel is progressive, hopeful, and charming, much more than the pastiche of Kiki’s Delivery Service suggested by its cover, but still strikes me as a derivative, uncertain effort.
Mooncakes. By Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker. Lettered by Joamette Gil; edited by Hazel Newlevant. Roar/Lion Forge, ISBN 978-1549303043 (softcover), Oct. 2019. 256 pages, $14.99.
Mooncakes is a Young Adult fantasy about witches, werewolves, and demons, set in a world where magic is — well, not commonplace, but not unheard of either. More than that, it’s a gentle romance between two sometime childhood friends, now young adults: Nova, a witch who lives and works with her grandmothers (also witches); and Tam, a genderqueer werewolf and a refugee, running from cultists who seek to exploit their power. Even more, though, Mooncakes is a paean to community: a culturally diverse, queer one that helps Nova and Tam bind demons and face down their adversaries. The complicated plot hints at a world in which the relationships between technology and magic, humans and spirits, and the living and dead could take volumes to explore. Xu’s drawing is organic and expressive, her pages lively variations on the grid, with occasional dramatic breakouts. The settings are richly textured, the colors thick, a tad cloying. The emotional dynamics are enriched with grace notes of characterization (Xu and Walker know when to take their time). That Nova is hard of hearing is a point gracefully handled, neither central nor incidental. The story is finally a bit too pat, and reworks some shopworn elements — again, there’s that whiff of Miyazaki, with animal spirits and talk of a young witch’s apprenticeship. Yet the distinct characters and budding romance make it click.
The Midwinter Witch. By Molly Knox Ostertag. Color by Ostertag and Maarta Laiho; designed by Ostertag and Phil Falco. Scholastic/Graphix, ISBN 978-1338540550 (softcover), Nov. 2019. 208 pages, $12.99.
The Midwinter Witch rounds out Ostertag’s middle-grade Witch Boy trilogy — though I dearly wish this wasn’t the last book, since she has created such a beguiling world and winning family of characters. The series keeps getting better, and this volume hints at conflicts and potential that could sustain even deeper explorations. Here, Aster (the gender-nonconforming “witch boy”) and Ariel (a character introduced in the second book, The Hidden Witch) and their friends attend the Midwinter Festival, a yearly reunion of Asher’s extended family. There they compete in a tournament that requires each of them to face their fears: Aster’s of defying a strictly gendered tradition, Ariel’s of not fitting in, of being the orphan and odd witch out. Acerbic and defensive, Ariel is not sure she can become part of Asher’s very welcoming family. A dark force from her past looms up, luring her to a different path and leading to a confrontation that is all too quickly resolved — I wanted to know more about Ariel’s particular darkness and its source. The payoff, though, is lovely and affirming. The Midwinter Witch is a remarkably sure-handed work of cartooning, enlivened by deft, often silent, characterization, artfully designed pages that mix the grid with bleeds and multilayered spreads, and felicitous coloring. Overall, it’s a marvel of elegant, empathetic storytelling — a new high for Ostertag.
By way of conclusion, I invite KinderComics readers with insights into this genre to weigh in with comments! I'd love to hear from readers with a strong interest in this kind of story; I'm eager to gain a fuller sense of the witch's tale, where it comes from, and what it might mean for culture and for comics. I see literary, cinematic, and anime/manga influences in this genre, but still find myself wondering, why is the witch's tale flourishing now, as a comics genre? How does the treatment of the witch's tale in comics differ from its treatment in prose?
5 Worlds: The Red Maze. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Random House, May 2019. Paperback: ISBN 978-1101935941, $12.99. Hardcover: ISBN 978-1101935927, $20.99. 256 pages.
5 Worlds — the epic science fantasy series by brothers Mark and Alexis Siegel and the artistic team of Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun — has been overstuffed with invented worlds, scenic wonders, and dizzying plot twists from the start (that being 2017’s The Sand Warrior and its 2018 followup, The Cobalt Prince). The series has bounded from one setup to another with a breathless energy and worked up a sprawling, spiraling plot. Its delights are many, but its confusions too, inspiring mixed reviews from yours truly (the first here, the second here). It’s a labor of love, obviously, and the complex collaboration behind it has wrought visually seamless results: a remarkable artistic and editorial feat. There have been times, though, when 5 Worlds has seemed to rush narratively from one thing to another: this world, and then that; a tip o’ the hat to this influence, then that one; another disclosure of tangled backstory, another "huh?" moment. I’ve sometimes wondered if the influences were going to cohere into something distinct, and if the long game wasn’t getting in the way of the individual volumes. But no longer. The recently-released third book, The Red Maze, gathers up, extends, and deepens 5 Worlds with confident character and thematic development, careful pacing, and a troubling relevance. It’s the strongest, most sure-handed of the three books to date, also the sharpest and most topical. An ambitious entry, it gains depth on rereading, while still pulling this reader eagerly on, toward the next volume. Now we’re talking.
Briefly, 5 Worlds depicts a system of five planets (to be visited over the series’s five volumes) that are dying of heat death and can only be saved by the lighting of a series of ancient “Beacons,” one on each world. Each new volume of the series focuses on one of the worlds and uses an integrated color scheme implying the dominant culture(s) of that world. The protagonists, a classic heroic triad, are Oona, trained in the ancient discipline of “sand dancing,” who is tasked with reigniting the Beacons; An Tzu, a street urchin of unknown origins and powers, still coming into his own; and Jax, a sports star and (secretly) an android, though archly nicknamed “The Natural Boy.” Each has an unfolding origin story full of twists and surprises, from Oona’s true heritage (revealed in The Cobalt Prince) to the newfound humanity of the Pinocchio-like Jax (who was waylaid for most of the second book but returns and grows more complex here), to An Tzu’s “vanishing illness” (i.e. disappearing body parts) and newly discovered oracular powers. All three have nonstandard, stereotype-defying qualities and hail from vividly realized cultures (carefully imagined in terms of ethnicity and class). In The Red Maze, all three have arcs, problems, and discoveries, without any one of them being overshadowed by the others. From the book's opening, a frantic action scene that reintroduces Jax, to its final pages, which tease the forthcoming Volume Four, the plot rockets along, and yet, more so than in past volumes, makes room for quiet, character-building exchanges and epiphanies. The Red Maze made me want to reread all three volumes with an eye on that proverbial long game. If the second book improved on the first, this new volume overleaps them both.
The Red Maze’s special power comes partly from its pointed political relevance. The book allegorizes the current politics of our world in a way that's pretty much on the nose, and crackles with urgency. At last, it seems that 5 Worlds is discovering (or perhaps I am just belatedly discovering?) its themes, which include, broadly speaking, fighting impending ecological disaster while speaking truth to power, and finding one’s identity in principled resistance without losing the joy of life. The Red Maze depicts its heroes saying "hell no" to the short-sightedness and greed of oligarchs and false populists who have vested interests in denying that anything is wrong. Along the way, of course, it tells multiple coming-of-age stories, as each of our three heroes has self-discoveries to make — but it's the constant backdrop of world-threatening climate change that sharpens everything and raises the stakes. This particular volume takes place on “the most technologically advanced of the Five Worlds,” the supposedly free and democratic Moon Yatta, against the background of, ah, an election campaign that pits the ordinary mendacity of a self-serving incumbent politician against the demonic scheming of a populist gazillionaire challenger, a demagogue boosted by authoritarian media and keen to exploit xenophobia. Both would like to silence our heroes’ message of looming environmental collapse. Basically, we’re dealing with climate change denial here, as well as a stew of political chicanery, nativism, and bigotry. Familiar?
There’s more. The Yattan regime, we learn, suppresses a minority of protean “shapeshifters” who have the ability to change bodily form (and gender) but who are subdued by “form-lock” collars (clearly, signs of enslavement). Signs of oppression are everywhere, most obviously in a diverse crew of rebellious street kids who become an intriguing if perhaps under-developed new supporting cast. Despite the kids' help, though, our heroes' attempts to penetrate the industrial complex or “maze” around Moon Yatta’s Beacon come to nothing. So, desperate measures are called for. Jax, athletic superstar, is coopted to play in a much-hyped televised championship that becomes a propaganda coup for the challenger, supported by the obscenely wealthy “Stoak” brothers. And if all that doesn’t come through clearly enough, allegorically, consider this blurb on the book’s inside front cover:
...Moon Yatta is home to powerful corporations that have gradually gained economic control at home and on neighboring worlds... [Its] democratic system of government is widely admired in the Five Worlds, but there is increasing concern that it may be undermined by the political influence of its corporations.
Indeed, a cabal of super-rich profiteers, aided by the rantings of a Limbaugh or Alex Jones-like media blowhard, works to undercut the Yattan democratic system. Everything, it seems, is about money, even health care: a hospital scene depicts a boastful, tech-savvy doctor determined to leech every penny from his patients. Other scenes show populist xenophobes towing the oligarchs’ line and condemning the shapeshifters for threatening the social order. Racism and homophobia are implicitly evoked (you have to read between the lines, but what’s there isn’t that hard to see).
Unsympathetic readers might call this propaganda, but children's fiction, including fantasy fiction, has always been value-laden if not didactic. My description may make The Red Maze sound less like a story than a screed, but it actually is a story, and a thrilling one, a rattling good yarn. At its heart is a spiritual crisis for Oona: the weight of expectation on her is so great that it crushes her joy in dancing, in using her near-magical art. She falters, bewildered and panicked by the retreat of her powers. (This recalls, for me, Kiki’s temporary loss of confidence and magic in Miyazaki’s adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service.)
Late in the book, a training sequence, that is, a mentor-mentee sequence, allows Oona — and the story — a calming and refocusing moment, a catching of breath. Thus Oona is able to take a perspective beyond that of the looming crisis, and learn a crucial new power. Her dilemma has to do with finding ways to sustain her spirit in the face of overwhelming environmental and political odds: how do you keep going when things are so terrible? That’s a kind of dilemma, and story, that needs telling right now.
Oona's mentor Zelle (one of a long line of mentor or donor figures in 5 Worlds) tells her, “We each have our own red maze. We can be lost there.” What’s needed, Zelle suggests, is joy and inspiration: some delight in the doing, right now, whatever the odds against us. Oona, though, admits that she feels stuck “inside the red maze. I feel confused just thinking about the place.” She has to look for other perspectives on her task, other angles on the problem. Out of that crisis comes the through-line that gives The Red Maze its depth and integrity.
This third volume of 5 Worlds makes everything click. It's aesthetically dazzling, of course; 5 Worlds has always been beautifully designed, rendered, and colored. The Red Maze is another master class in revved-up graphic storytelling, the pages at times bursting into frenzied action, during which bleeds, diagonals, and unframed figures spike the book's ordinarily measured and lucid delivery (dig, for instance, the ecstatic climax). The series has always been good at that sort of thing. Yet now 5 Worlds is jelling narratively and thematically. The Red Maze builds smartly on the previous books, and brings fresh nuances to its heroes, growing each into a deeper, more interesting character. The myriad artistic influences are still there, but the world-building no longer feels, say, stenciled from Miyazaki; instead the story-world has gained enough heft and momentum to draw this reader into its own singular orbit. And the stakes feel genuinely high.
I expect that, when 5 Worlds is completed, rereading it all and watching it come together is going to be a very rewarding experience. Granted, The Red Maze won't make sense to those who haven't read the first two volumes: though 5 Worlds has a modular structure (one world per book), it is definitely one continuing story, not an episodic series. (Start with The Sand Warrior.) But this third volume is a terrific reward for those who've been following along: a timely, urgent, artfully layered adventure. I think we’re looking at some kind of monument in the making.
Random House provided a review copy of this book.