The Reason For Dragons
writer: Chris Northrop
artist: Jeff Stokely
Upon opening The Reason For Dragons, the answer may seem obvious. Life is full of metaphorical dragons, obstacles we have to face, not the least of which is adulthood itself. But the wonderful surprise of this book is that it won't give you easy answers -- or rather, it refuses to tell you whether you should be looking for metaphors or really just be fighting dragons.
Northrop and Stokely open with a modern day knight and squire, Our first image is of Ted, a man smoldering with rage, yet obviously trying to become a gentler, better man. He regales his step-son Wendell with a lesson in motorcycle maintenance, but there's no zen involved.
It's Wendell's story, an adolescent trying to come to grips with the demands of being a teen-ager when he was quite happy being a child, thank you. The (allegedly) simple task of an oil change is beyond him -- I can relate -- and he wants to retreat into memories of his pilot father, who made no demands on him.
Yet he can't help but feel all that pressure, resentful of those who can still claim innocence and then himself pushed down not by Ted, but by the local bullies. Their taunts send him into the woods.
And though this is the real world of New Hampshire, Wendell's journey will take him into perils unknown, and force him to squire to another knight -- the mentally unbalanced Sir Habersham, who has wandered the forest ever since the fire that burned down "King Henry's Olde Faire."
To the locals, that fire was arson. To Sir Habersham, it was a dragon that he failed to defeat, and that he is convinced also still wanders the woods. Habersham's noble ravings resemble those of Don Quixote (and no doubt, Stokely's design of the renaissance faire includes a purposeful windmill), so Wendell can both be fascinated and write Habersham off as a loon.
But there IS something in the woods, and it isn't just a worried Ted looking for him.
Northrop deftly steers Wendell's journey back and forth between reality and fantasy, but maybe that's not a fair characterization. For those of us into comics and narrative, the point is to be open to the fantastic, and so the line really has to be blurry. And let's face it, sometimes growing up really does feel like you've walked through a portal to another world.
In that, he has the perfect collaborator with Stokely. The character design of adults is bold and angular, while Wendell still has a child-like roundness that occasionally echoes comic strip dreamers like Calvin and Charlie Brown.
And Stokely is a great actor. There's a recognizable twinkle to Habersham's eyes in flashbacks that fades a bit when he is confronted by tragedy. While Ted at first seems like a stereotypical tough guy biker, his body language does soften and we can see glimpses of the man Wendell's mother would love, and of a complex man trying to father a teen-ager without completely replacing the memories of his biological father.
To go further is to venture into spoiler territory, and really, you need to discover this story for yourself. Suffice to say that Northrop manages to go both exactly where you think he will, and then again not. It's a recognizable story of frustration and hope, of people facing harsh reality and then finding that the world might just still be a little more magical than they think.
And then afterwards, Northrop and Stokely open up their world to some other collaborators, who offer short stories that fill in the world they've created. They're cool little peeks into the past of the characters, though I have to admit the main narrative doesn't need them. Still, it's a generous chance to explore some other artistic styles -- in particular, Julia Fung's Viet Nam flashback for Ted (the main story takes place in the '80s) has a savory look of classic Stephen R. Bissette about it.
My favorite touch in the whole thing -- the frontspiece of the book is a fold-out brochure for the Ren Faire, inviting readers to draw Sir Habersham's dragon and mail it in to Archaia. I'm torn by this kind of thing -- I don't know whether a pristine copy should be truly complete, or if in years to come the more valuable copy would be one in which someone was inspired to create a dragon and send it in.
After all, the reason for dragons may really be so that people will be inspired.
As always, look to your local comics shop for the books discussed here on Fanboy Planet -- Earth-2 in Sherman Oaks and Northridge, The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, Illusive Comics & Games in Santa Clara would all be great places.
But if you live in an area where you are not served by a comics shop (GASP!), we do provide a helpful Amazon link.