Max Badger's Oak is one of the last books that received a Xeric grant, and it was one of the worthier recipients to ever earn this honor. In addition to being a fine and assured debut comic, it's also one of the better all-ages fantasy comics I've ever read. Badger's figures are simple and fluid, with the unnamed orphan protagonist being an especially well-crafted character. The squarish head, the big dark eyes and the messy hair make him easy to follow across the page. Badger keeps things simple with him in order to make it easy for him to depict the character in a variety of states and moods. Most of his character design follows suit, with more detailed backgrounds like forests, caves and a village detailed enough to almost feel and smell. He modulates tone with an extensive use of greyscaling and spotting blacks; he uses very little simple white negative space. This is important, because each panel has a sense of weight and solidity to it, grounding what is in reality a fantasy quest story into a mundane and humorously realistic stumble through the woods.
What makes this book so enjoyable is that it's a quest book only by accident and on the sly. It's book-ended by a classic fairy-tale trope: a tree begs a woodsman to spare it, and in return alerts him that Death is coming for them both. They set a trap for Death which doesn't work, but he's so impressed by their bravery that he grants them each a wish. The woodsman accepts his own death but wants his son to be spared. Death instead agrees to make him brave. The tree wants the boy to have his strength, so if he doesn't fear death, he'll at least be tough enough to deal with what comes with that attitude. We are then introduced to the orphan boy, whose fearlessness and toughness come into play in an almost naive fashion, as he helps to save a girl from humiliation.
From there, the narrative of the book is the boy trying to return to a certain spot so he can go on a date with the girl the next day. However, he keeps getting interrupted and going the wrong way. He first falls into the tomb of a king and talks the king's ghost into getting out of there. Then he encounters a huge, talking snake that wants to eat him, but in a long and hilarious chase scene with a number of twists and turns, the two become allies. He encounters a dead soldier's ghost and convinces her to turn away from revenge. An intelligent cloud decides to follow them around and be his pet. The orphan convinces each of his companions to abandon their quest, not join one, though they all agree to help him get home for their own reasons. Each of these supporting characters is rich and interesting enough to support a narrative of their own--some of them funny, some of them grim.
Badger cleverly ties up their story threads at the end of the book, when the orphan's return is to a town that's been taken over. What was a gentle, loping narrative suddenly becomes tense and exciting, as though the characters were called in from back stage to deal with a crisis. The book seems to end in tragedy, a fact that alarms the tree at the end of the book. As it turns out, Death visited the tree a few times to tell him more about the boy, and Badger cleverly outlines the fate of every character--with the orphan boy last. Oak is cleverly structured, funny and genuinely warm without being overly twee or treacly. At 9 x 12' and in hardcover, Badger is smart to work as big as possible, letting his pages breathe and his characters fill up the page. Badger keeps the reader off-balance, slipping between action, slice of life character work, comedy and drama from scene to scene, and one gets the sense that he could work in any kind of genre and produce a work of similar quality. He's got all the tools needed to become an excellent and interesting cartoonist; it will simply be a matter of further refinement and continued inspiration.