Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Closing Loops: Over The Wall

Peter Wartman's YA fantasy comic, Over the Wall (Uncivilized Books), is a fine first effort that's remarkably lean and terse with regard to its world-building and myth-making. It hits on any number of familiar YA and fantasy tropes--rites of passage, the power of names and naming things, the hopeless quest, the unlikely ally--and finds fresh ways of using them. There are even clever bits of genre subversion to be found in this fully-realized fantasy story. It follows a girl who sets out on a quest to find her missing brother in a city long abandoned by her fellow villagers. There's no prologue or preamble, cutting straight to the chase, as it were. When she encounters a demon on the walls of the abandoned city, that's when Wartman begins his skillful process of doing story backfill. However, when we learn how and why the people abandoned the city to the demons, we hear the story from both her and a demon, and their accounts of what happened are quite different. Wartman hints that the truth is somewhere in-between, as it tends to be during times of war.

There's more than a little Jeff Smith flavor in these proceedings, which means that the DNA of Smith's influences (Carl Barks and Walt Kelly) can also be seen. The characters have a certain rounded cuteness to them, even the fiercer and more monstrous ones. The action and panel transitions are seamless and fluid, as when the girl and her demon friend run to escape a Named demon. The story is also quite compact at just 100 pages; Wartman wastes no time in getting to the premise, then to the action, then to the climax and a final reveal of information. The book's atmosphere is another of its strong points. The story takes place at night, and so the book heavily dips into blacks and a sort of light purple wash over everything else. That lends the book some of its eerie atmosphere, one navigated by a fearless, clever and single-minded girl. One other thing I like about the book is that though the girl succeeds in her quest, the story's constraints set things up so that she can never actually be quite sure if the boy she brings back is actually her brother. The ways in which memories can trick us and become warped is a running theme in the book, especially when those unreliable memories harden and become malignant. While neither the reader nor the heroine can know for sure if she was really successful in what she set out to do, she was still successful in saving someone thanks to her purity of intent, and she even manages to bestow a significant gift on her unexpected ally.

There's just a wonderful sense of restraint to be found in nearly every one of Wartman's storytelling decisions. The fact that the lead is a girl actually has some pointed gender implications in the course of the story, revealing both her bravery and wit in a subtle feminist statement. Wartman doesn't reveal the lead's interior monologue; we as readers only know what she says out loud. The demon ally's motivations are kept unclear even as its actions point to unlikely and low-key heroism. As allies, the two small and relatively weak protagonists manage to hurt and then outwit a formidable opponent. At the same time, Wartman's art has an understated elegance to it. Even the girl's clothing is simple but beautiful, with an ornate belt and loops in her hair. The abandoned city shows a slew of influences, from Mayan to African and Wartman's own imagination. Instead of deluging the reader with extraneous details just to share the full scope of his world, Wartman instead just gives hints and tidbits: enough to make the reader curious to hear more and savor revelations when they pop up. I'd be intrigued to read Wartman's further explorations in this world or a new one of his own creation.

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