Friday, September 2, 2016

NoBrow: Luke Pearson

The latest edition of Luke Pearson's Hilda series, Hilda And The Stone Forest, feels like a significant turning point in the series. Each of the first four volumes has expanded the world that Hilda, her mother and her friends live in, but this fifth volume represents a recapitulation of the first four volumes and then expands on that in often harrowing fashion as Hilda and her mom find themselves trapped in a mysterious stone forest. The beginning of the book recapitulates the earlier volumes by depicting highly abridged versions of Hilda's typically rough-and-tumble, hyperkinetic adventures. That began with a long, Carl Barks-inspired sequence where Hilda was chasing after a big clot of dirt with legs that had captured a tiny elven house. Over and under fences, across tracks, through forests and finally at a farmer's house outside of the town's safety wall, the catch here is that Hilda constantly lied to her mother about where she was.

Pearson ramped that up in some remarkably designed pages. There's one page where the action starts at the top of the page in the upper left hand corner, and then the eye is sent to the panel below it, til one gets to the bottom of the page. Splitting the middle of the page into a pair of interlocking trapezoids was an ingenious way of getting the reader to follow the page's action with ease with a repeating pattern in each columns: panel one would be a lie Hilda told to her mom about where she was going, panel two was some crazy adventure and panel three was Hilda lying about where she had been--often covered in dust. While Hilda's mom was trying to keep her safe, Hilda hit a sore spot when she accused her mom of wanting Hilda around because she was lonely.

After a series of misbehavior and some magical mishaps, Hilda and her mother found themselves in a stone forest. Pearson's color schemes shifted from the vibrant, warm and welcoming hues of the city and the forest to the more pale and slightly sickly tones of the forest. There's one two page spread where the "camera" is pulled way back and we the tiny figures of Hilda and her mom walking through the forest and we get a sense of the huge scale of their environment. Each of the three panels on each page is a different color, further contributing to the alien quality of their surroundings. When they discover that they're in fact inside the mountain home of the ferocious Stone Trolls, the narrative shifts once again.

The narrative stops being one of blame and starts being one of survival and escape, as they try to figure out a way to get past the notice of the trolls and get back outside. They learn that there are a variety of trolls, some who are vicious and bullying and others who are kind and group-oriented. They eventually wind up being taken in by a troll and her baby, the latter of whom constructs crude figurines of Hilda and herself. The story seems to resolve in a predictable way: there are more chase scenes, there's a last-minute rescue and everything is cleverly arranged. Pearson never wastes a panel on an extraneous detail and always ties up every plot element, often in unusual ways. There's what appears to be a happy ending where Hilda's learned her lesson and her mother assures her that "I wouldn't change you for the world." That would have been a perfectly fine ending, only Pearson springs a doozy of a cliffhanger that's set up by the mysterious little dolls that the troll baby made. The fact that he smashed reader expectations while still delivering the goods otherwise showed that Hilda's world is getting more complex than she can understand and in this case cope with. Pearson's proven that this isn't a series of books that repeat actions from episode to episode, but rather a coherent serial that's slowly building to something more fantastic, calling back to old characters and details that may not have seemed important when they were introduced.

Of course, Pearson's art has become incredibly self-assured. It's allowed him to become visually bolder in every volume, even as the basics of his character design (especially the flawless stick-arms and stick-legs of Hilda herself and her slightly floating cap) have built a level of familiarity and comfort for the reader. By the time Hilda comes to Netflix as a series in a couple of years, Pearson will no doubt have another volume ready and a lot of material to build on for the show.

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