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In Praise of Neotopia
story and art by Rod Espinosa

It's hard to talk about Neotopia in terms of typical fanboy
touchpoints. It swings close to classic manga territory, but the scarcity of cute nymphettes and the equal emphasis on character, technology, and setting pull it away again into a genre of its own, calling to mind Moebius and Herge (Tintin) as readily as Miyazaki and Tezuka.

In other words, it's solid and unapologetic fantasy, short on
gratuitous sex and violence but also clever metafictional conceits (Fables, Sandman) and angsty psychological depth (Books of Magic).

So what does it have?

Gorgeously drawn and detailed settings, cute characters who are innocent without being saccharine and capable without being implausible, and a rich world and story composed of familiar elements but still original in the particulars -- is this enough for you?

Don't get me wrong -- sex, violence, cleverness and angst have sold me on many a comic (among other things), but it's not faint praise to call this book a palate-cleanser, a breath of fresh air that's still plenty weighty enough to stand on its own.

It makes some sense to talk about these two issues together, not just because I somehow missed 2.2 and had to track it down before I could write about 2.3, but because the one is a cliffhanger leading into the second.

2.2 begins by developing the relationship between Princess Nalyn and Sergeant Philios, first through a confrontation over Philios' affection for old technology. Heavy industry of the kind we would recognize apparently all but destroyed this world in the middle-distant past, and experimentation with these ancient machines is frowned upon if not actually forbidden.

Technology of the present time is designed for thought control and eliminates pollution, hence the subtitle of the series ("The Perilous Winds of Athanon"), which refers to the environment in which our heroes pilot their half-sailing-ship-half-airship. The friction between Philios and Nalyn
is mild, however, giving way to the romantic fantasies each has about the other but shies away from revealing. Then, disaster strikes, as the ship approaches a storm, nearly escaping when they are attacked and sent down into the blackness.

It's hardly a proper cliffhanger, though, without any clear resolution, so I'm not spoiling much by saying we don't get one in 2.3. At the start of the issue the ship is damaged but still upright, and while repairs commence, our heroes set out for a nearby island to explore. A friendly native conveys them to the island's capital city, where they learn of the island's millenium-long rejection of machines, and of the source of the attack that brought down the ship.

Along with a possible new romantic entanglement for the Princess, we also encounter a couple of elements that verge on the too-cute; one of the supporting cast of this book is a telepathic dolphin who uses a four-legged mechanical suit to move about on land, and the other is, ahem, a brownie. The former reveals that political intrigue, predictably, makes this island a somewhat more dangerous place than it would seem at first glance, while the latter...this is embarrassing, um...learns magic with a wood dryad he meets.

Look, I SWEAR it's good, pixies notwithstanding.

Both issues come with various inside-back-cover supplementary material, like maps, cultural exposition, and journals by Philios. In another book, I might complain that this material properly belongs woven into the story and not dumped on us at the end, but it's a credit to the soundness of Espinosa's world that this extra information doesn't come across as useless or pretentious.

Reading these first few issues feels like cracking the first few chapters of an epic, generous, uplifting fantasy novel with 500-plus pages left to go. I don't know about you, but it's been a long time since I've found a good one of those.


Andrew Simchik


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