Th3rd World Studios has a couple sneaky-good comics out there for people looking for a new story to disappear into. Some years past I found myself reading Stuff of Legend cover to cover while standing at their table at the New York Comic Con. This year at Small Press Expo in Bethesda they caught me with another one:
Finding Gossamyr, Volume 1. by David A. Rodriguez and Sarah Ellerton.
The story itself is familiar enough, a brother and sister are pulled into another world through a magic portal. There they find beautiful evil sorcerers, get caught in great conflicts between powerful antagonists, struggle to survive, that sort of thing.
The unusual angle in this case is that magic in that far realm is enacted via abstruse mathematics, solving arcane equations to trigger the effects. In our protagonist Denny we find a hero uniquely suited for that environment, even if it causes him distress.
At mathematics Denny is a natural talent, a boy genius. His sister Jenna has been taking care of him in the absence of her parents and she needs all the help she can get; if he can be cared for at school, then she can go to college herself. If only Denny can keep it together during the admission process to an exclusive academy then she has a chance at a normal life...
Well, he can't. Keep it together that is. Chiefly because Denny is not the usual brand of genius, if there is such a thing. In fact he's autistic. The academy would provide scholarship, lodging, caretakers, meals and a stipend in exchange for the work of the best and brightest students to advance a single theorem in an attempt to crack an unsolvable mathematical code that will unlock that portal to another realm. Their admissions exam is simply to present the problem and see how the student attempts to crack it.
Denny actually solves the problem, swiftly, but has a vision partway through that shows this to be a terrible mistake, and leaves the solution unwritten. Intuitively he can see that the solution will have a terrible result, he sees into the world waiting beyond, he can see the beautiful and terrible Skaythe waiting to enslave an entire world.
The problem is he can't really explain that -- or articulate much of anything clearly -- and who would believe him? Even here in this reality he lives in his own world. Ordinary stimulus of interpersonal interaction is too much for him, he needs his familiar rules, familiar schedules, his model ships, and structures and rituals. The enormity of the terrible thing waiting at the end of that solution is enough to send him running from the room inarticulate and panicked.
Can the dean and Jenna pressure him to solve the problem despite that terror? And if they do, what happens if the portal does open? Can Jenna protect him from the consequences of a choice she forced him to make?
The relationship between these siblings is what makes the story work best. Jenna's frustrations are real, she is exhausted from having to defer her entire life to take the role her parents would not. Denny's terrors are powerful, his tantrums are desperate attempts to hold on to order, to get a grip on the one problem that is too complex for him to solve: life itself. This need for rigid structure wars with any semblance of normalcy, and in order to protect him, Jenna has to defer her own life to live by his rules, or make "arrangements" with him to adjust those rules. Yet she loves him, and he relies on her for everything. These two together must face a fantastical realm, where the rules have entirely changed, but where it turns out Denny's remarkable talents are a miraculous boon, for all that the fact gives him no comfort.
Writer David A. Rodriguez seems to know autism well. The fact that Denny is surrounded by wonders matters less to him than the precise measure of things, or those rituals of schedule, or his collections of model ships. For him wonder is a threat to be conquered, he trusts knowledge that you can count on to be true, or the rote accumulation of facts to make sense of things. Jenna's fatigue and frustration with his personality is similarly believable, though her strained compassion turns to fierce heat when his safety is threatened. Denny can't not solve a problem once it is presented to him; Jenna can't not care. Their realistic personal character is what carries a story that otherwise might be predictable.
Sarah Ellerton's art also keeps things lively with an animators eye for expression and fluidity of action. Oxlions and swashbuckling adventurers and shadowy elves all rollick and swashbuckle and lurk in her pages. Colors are somehow both vivid and misty, even her shadows seem warm and supple.
In all an interesting start for a book that promises more to come. A few panels of knife fighting may keep it from being "all-ages" appropriate but there's no gore or the like, we have it on our Young Adult shelves for the audience that might be most interested in it.
Stuff of Legend, Omnibus editions One and Two ,by Mike Raicht & Brian Smith, Illustrated by Charles Paul Wilson III.
By no means fuzzy and warm, Stuff of Legend is the dark epic of valiant stuffed animals venturing into the dream world to rescue their Boy from the armies of the Boogeyman. Not for little kids, by turns harrowing and grim, this is the Saving Private Ryan version of A Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. Beloved characters die, or betray each other, or prove cowardly and fail. But the story will grip you and keep the pages turning. And in that dark tone the story is perhaps more true to the nature of childhood fears, feeling trapped in a world with arbitrary rules and emotions you do not understand.
The art is sepia tints and dirty greyscale pencils, which manages to evoke a sense of age, and that eternity of timelessness in dreams and nightmares. These deep shadows are not cozy and warm, they are tar pits to drown in. In this dark realm a fuzzy teddy bear turns into a great and powerful hulk of claws and fur and teeth, a toy clown becomes a hatchet wielding acrobat dancing on the battlefield cracking grim jokes. They bleed and kill, fear defeat and exult in victory.
We've had volumes one and two on our shelves since they came out, these Omnibus hardcover volumes collect books 1-4, ending on a cliffhanger as the best serial stories do, but they are satisfying for all that there is no resolution to the story arc. The weight and heft of these hardcover volumes matches the content within. Worth adding to your collection for young adult readers and mature kids. They're not happy books, but all the more gripping adventure for the lack of happy easy answers.
Posted by Dave at November 26, 2014 05:59 PM