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City of Light, City of Dark

One of the best things about comics is that it doesn’t target audiences the way that most media seems to these days. Comic books have the ability to be written for a specific age group or demographic and still find a way to be published. This is very much opposite of the movie and television industries, where the goal is to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of viewers, causing many films to be edited to the point where their content can be considered PG-13 and thus, more accessible to more age groups.

Comics do not have to do that, though many do. Books are more and more written for one age group or another: older, younger and what have you. Entire lines like Marvel Age have been established in order to cater to the youth market, and lines like Vertigo have been adult-oriented since their creation.

While the mainstream is powerful and accessible to most readers, even comics in the general continuity of all the big companies have a tendency to gravitate to one side or the other of the age gap, some even settling into an in-between place the way Runaways does.

The point being that we can always find a way to differentiate between what comics are good for kids and which are not. I won’t be giving a copy of Preacher to any toddlers anytime soon. And yet, we really have few writers dedicated to the writing of children’s material. Jill Thompson springs to mind, as does Mark Crilley, but there are few writers in comics that create for children at anything approaching a prolific pace.

So, as I went searching for a children’s graphic novel to prove correct my first few paragraphs, I came across a “comic-book novel” by one of young adult literature’s more famous names: Avi. You might remember him from The Man Who Was Poe or Midnight Magic, or a few dozen others, as Avi is one of today’s better writers for children. Along with illustrator Brian Floca, Avi brings to life the very unusual story of New York City’s secret history and its even more secret guardians.

“To begin with, there were the KURBS,” is the first line of Avi’s story, introducing the reader to the real owners of Manhattan: the Kurbs. What the Kurbs are and what they want are things of mystery, but what is known is that long ago, when mankind first came to this island, they made pact with these creatures of dark power. Mankind would be allowed to live and build on the island but they must, each year, enact a ritual acknowledging the power the Kurbs still possessed over the island of Manhattan. Each year, one designated person shall find the hidden power of the Kurbs and return it to them at a designated place. Failure to do this will cause the Kurbs to destroy Manhattan, freezing it and killing all who live upon it.

Carlos Jaurez was just walking home from school one day when he came across a subway token. Wrenching it free from a militant pigeon, Carlos takes it home and soon discovers it is no ordinary coin. Uptown, Sarah Stubbs is helping her father run their candy shop as her father’s scary friend, Mr. Underton, makes yet another stop in to collect money from Mr. Stubbs. This is fine until Mr. Underton decides he needs to borrow Sarah in order to find something of great and horrible value. And down in the bowels of Grand Central station, a lone woman stirs, searching to find the power of the Kurbs, in order to return it and save the city. All of these people will collide as they search for the Power, some innocently and some with only the most evil of ends in mind, all in the City that never sleeps.

Part of what marks this as clearly a book meant for children is the straightforward structure that Avi imposes on the story; he quickly eliminates the back story of the Kurbs, and then gives the histories of several characters, in narrative form, before beginning the story itself. In a book aimed at adults, this would be serviceable but dull writing. In a children’s book targeting the younger readers, this is a good idea because it allows the story to move quickly and provides the foundation for the story.

Avi is able to describe some rather abstract concepts very rapidly without giving too much detail while Floca’s depictions of the Kurbs as amorphous shadows flows well with Avi’s sparse description of the monsters. He also manages to flesh out the characters of Mr. Stubbs and Mr. Underton very early, giving the reader a chance to focus on the two main protagonists, Carlos and Sarah. Children readers more readily focus onto the character closest to their ages, which Avi understands, getting these other characters done early so that the children’s attention spans will be tied to his child heroes.

The straightforward plot structure is somewhat harder on the adult reader. The adult will be able to guess at many things coming in through the front door of the plot, though Avi does have some surprises in the story that are not easily guessed at.

Of note is Floca’s artwork. He uses ink pen, playing with shadows and crosshatching to get his varying textures. He also draws freehand, not using a ruler as much of his straight-line work and architectural appears shaky on close inspection. I think this may be deliberate, because the soft lines and the lack of harsh corners give the narrative a dream-like and child-like quality that seems to echo the fact that this is indeed a children’s book, while also adding to the fantasy elements on the piece. His facial work could use some definition, but his artistic style is one of minimalism, so it fits and is certainly at the complexity level a child can understand.

Overall, this is a well put together children’s comic. Will you enjoy it as an adult reader? Probably not, as its simple rhythms and plot beats are clearly not meant for you, but it is certainly something one could buy for the middle reader in your household. It’s an enjoyable story about family, fantasy, ingenuity, and responsibility and is a welcome addition to my comic book shelf.

City Of Light, City Of Dark

Robert Sparling

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