The Enlightened Age
Once upon a time, when Mark Alessi and CrossGen
had yet to fold like a bad hand of hold ‘em, I remarked
more than once on the attention to world building that some
of their artists displayed, and I’m sure that I often
applauded CrossGen’s ability to write almost entirely
in an all-ages respect. But CrossGen is gone, thanks to
bad business practices, and the books themselves are collecting
dust in bargain bins and half-off boxes around the nation.
Despite Marvel’s recent stab at making books for the
all-Marvel Ages category and DC’s line of kids comics
(Teen Titans Go!, etc), there remain few comics
that are capable of being read by a readership of many ages
and yet maintain a level of writing that interests more
than just the “under-12” crowd. While books
like Runaways gets lumped under the Marvel Age
publishing category, that title really is a book that is
more enjoyed by an audience over the age of thirteen, just
for some of the themes it deals with, and books like the
ones from DC are just not written very well. This is a reason
we lose kids to manga more and more, because a large sampling
of manga panders to the younger audience, while still entertaining
some older readers.
I’m perusing the manga shelves, I come across something
that looks like manga, but is not. I came across Antarctic
Press’s Neotopia, written and drawn by Rod
Espinosa. And just like that, my faith in all-ages comic
bookery was restored.
Neotopia is a land a thousand years in the
earth’s future, one in which the people of Earth have
survived a great cataclysm caused by the proliferation of
industry and the overuse of earth’s resources. Technology,
while not entirely gone from this world, is looked down
upon, in favor of the ecologically balanced existence humanity
currently enjoys. Magical races like faeries and brownies
that fled during the Industrial Age, have now returned,
and the lands of Neotopia have experienced unheard of peace.
But not everything is perfect.
Enter Nalyn, the Grand Duchess of Manthenia,
or at least that’s what everyone thinks. Nalyn is
actually just a servant that looks similar to the Duchess
and who, through the use of faerie glamour, fulfills all
the duties that the Duchess feels too bothered to do. This
includes such menial tasks as combat practice, attending
to civilian courts, and other such “boring”
activities. Nalyn even manages to fool the Prince and King
of Manthenia, so convincing she is. But things begin to
escalate when the still-industrial nation of Krossos attempts
to abduct Nalyn. After the abduction, war breaks out and
now the nation of Manthenia must defend itself from the
machinations of the Krossosian people, as well as fight
threats from within, and Nalyn must maintain her secret
while leading her people into war.
Nalyn is the main protagonist, Espinosa has created a cast
of characters that are well realized, interesting, and compliment
each other well. Each character has their own temperament,
their own unique style of humor and speech. I love being
able to tell which character is speaking just by reading
dialogue, and Espinosa does this just by writing good characters.
The Duchess’ personal guards Marro, the arrogant elfin
archer with a chip on his shoulder, and Segeant Tinbolt,
the over-cautious mechanical man, are interesting, as is
the air ship mechanic Philios who is obsessed with ancient
technology (and one must laugh when “ancient”
technology refers to jet-packs). There’s the talking,
psychokinetic dolphin Ki-Ek, who is Nalyn’s best friend
and along with the brownie Nimn, one of the only people
who knows her secret. The Duchess’ teacher/advisor
is a pterodactyl-man, who cluelessly continues to educate
the young imposter, and then there’s Monti; Philios’
best friend and a great airship pilot, as well as being
a very literal bat-man.
cast is incredibly rich, not just from his writing but also
from his creative character designs, which is a product
of his world building techniques.
let me say, the man’s world building techniques are
spectacular. While there is a section in the beginning of
the graphic novel that gives the reader something of an
introduction to the world, the rest of the world unfolds
for the reader very easily. The use of airships and how
they work is woven into the story, as is the system of government
the Manthenia employs. Espinosa often uses just his artwork
to describe the world, letting the images speak for themselves,
which is refreshing compared to many writers who, when faced
with having to world-build, resort to pat exposition.
lets the reader discovers the intricacies of his world slowly
and within the narrative and he never misses the mark as
his pacing is excellent. He often uses smaller panel progression
just leading into grand splash pages and full-page pieces
and it fosters in the reader a great sense of movement,
not just in the artwork, but in the way the reader perceives
the story. The story moves and even the slower and quiet
parts make the reader want more as Espinosa just continues
to build the story.
work, like Lea Hernandez, is informed by manga and has many
of the conventions of manga, but his style also relies on
some more American artistic techniques. There is almost
no facial sameness as his style is more detailed than many
mangaka’s work. His character designs are excellent
and he uses specific care when designing the clothes of
the grandiose ducal family and some of the other characters.
impressive, and not surprisingly so since Espinosa graduated
with a degree in architectural drafting before he began
his comics career, are his landscapes. The attention to
detail on the structural aspects of world building help
fully realize Espinosa’s Neotopia, and the
combination of his great character work, great pacing, and
structural ability make Neoptopia one of the best
looking comics I’ve seen in years. And did I mention
that the entire thing is in color! The color is beautiful
in this book and adds even more to the already impressive
$9.99, you get the first five volumes of Espinosa’s
work, and a small atlas section in the back. It’s
well worth it and not only can it be enjoyed by the younger
reader, the older reader is nothing short of entertained.
The closest parallel for this level of work in the manga/anime
medium is Hayao (Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa) Miyazaki.
That’s how good this is.