I’m always on the lookout for good kid-friendly graphic novels to stock my library’s shelves with. And I am particularly interested in publishers that don’t get as much library face time as they might since the presence of comics on library shelves is still a relatively new idea. Image Comics is based out of Berkeley, California and I have to admit that I’m not particularly familiar with their work. Really, my first contact with them came when I somehow ended up with a copy of their graphic novel Princess at Midnight, republished from an earlier manga anthology. Eschewing the usual princess tropes and ideas we’re all so sick of, author/illustrator Andi Watson tackles notions of preemptive strikes, war, and sibling rivalry all within a slim 64 pages. Sadly, it does have a pretty crummy ending that slaps you upside the face out of nowhere, but ignoring that (which is fairly easy to do) this is a great purchase for anyone in search of a new and fun graphic novel for the younger set.
By day Holly Crescent is a dutiful daughter, beleaguered sister, and attentive student. Her overprotective father homeschools her with her twin brother Henry so as to keep them safe and out of trouble. Little does Mr. Crescent suspect that each night when Holly goes to bed she is transported to Waxing Castle where she reigns as princess. Normally her time there is spent generally enjoying herself, but when creatures from the Horde Territory trespass on Holly’s enchanted picnic spot it can only mean one thing: war. Aided by a dragon chancellor of surprising economic and strategic restraint, and a tailor turned general who sports a greater interest in organza than organized warfare, Holly beats back her enemies with a viciousness that’s bound to lead to failure or, at the very least, a significant depletion in the nation’s coffers. The biggest surprise, however, may lay in finding out who exactly controls her enemies’ movements. Sometimes the personal and public overlap in surprising ways.
Don’t let the title fool you. Though Holly does the pretty pretty princess act for a couple pages, she eventually settles into her role as a land-hungry warlord bent on her neighbors’ destruction. It’s a pity that a lot of boys will read the word Princess in the title and then shy away from anything that potentially feminine. You’re really going to have to talk up the battle aspects and twin brother details to some of the more close-minded of them. It is fortunate that the cover uses as light a shade of pink as it does alongside a deep dark purple. There isn’t anything particularly girly about the layout, but you’ll still have to talk some past the title.
I really did appreciate that Holly was a mighty flawed princess as princesses go. She starts off as average and sympathetic when she’s just normal day-to-day Holly. Her twin brother bugs her, her dad won’t let her go outside to play as much as she would like to; these are all normal problems. And until Princess Holly gets a taste of warfare, she’s a fairly pleasant sort. Of course, the moment she suspects that the Hoard is mooching off of her land, that’s when her tiny tyrant comes out. Her response when the chancellor suggests drawing up a treaty that would allow them to share the land? “Share? I’m a princess, I don’t do sharing.” It’s particularly interesting when she tries to grab an additional hill after successfully routing the enemy the first time. “What if it’s one of their burial mounds or a sacred barrow?” She doesn’t care a jot for that, and in the end that’s part of the reason she fails. The book has the general feeling of a kid making up storylines and characters in her head only to find those situations and people taking their lives into their own hands whether she says yea or nay. It’s a cool take.
You will sometimes hear adults speculate that kids won’t read comics or comic books that sport black and white pen-and-ink art without a drop of color. This is one of those silly rumors you can feel free to ignore. If a kid is offered a version of a book in color and a different version not in color, are they going to choose the colorized one? Of course. But this is not to say that they don’t love a great story with an excellent sense of layout. Watson’s pages are broken up continually, and in perpetually interesting ways. Borders disappear and then pop right back in again. Vertical layouts gently turn night to day. Visual angles jump about, silhouettes arrive, the whole kerschmozzle is expertly done and consistently interesting.
I liked the art and I liked the story and dialogue. I liked all of that. What I didn’t like was the ending. The record for this book says of it “First published in the Best New Manga Anthology, Princess at Midnight is reformatted here with ten new pages.” Apparently the first version ended with Holly as Princess going to bed and her twin brother (surprise!) doing the same only to be revealed as her arch nemesis. I can only assume that the publisher figured that 54 pages would be too slim to justify bringing this out as a full-fledged book and the additional ten pages were added after the fact. Unfortunately, this appears to have been a big mistake. Both versions of “Princess at Midnight” end without a lot of resolution. But when you end with the surprise reveal that Henry is Holly’s nemesis both at night and during the day, that’s a perfect set-up for a sequel. The way it ends now, you get this odd fight with an “annihilative horror” that ends with a whimper and the particularly inconclusive line “She was left feeling that in the wrong hands, education could be a dangerous thing.” Clearly the book should have cut out this story and used it to begin the sequel, if indeed there is one. As it stands the reader turns the page, blinks, turns it back, blinks, and comes to slow realization that the book has ended not gradually but with a swift chopping motion.
All this is a real pity because the book really does have some fine and upstanding qualities. And honestly, my quibble with the finale is a very adult take. Kids will enjoy every page of this and when the ending leaves them hungering for more, they’ll simply expect a sequel of some sort. Let us hope that it is forthcoming. These are the days when women leaders are cropping up in our politics left and right. So it’s sort of a relief to see a comic book for kids where it is clear that ladies can be equal to men in terms of tyranny. Consider pairing with the fellow pint-sized graphic novel ruler Tiny Tyrant by Lewis Trondheim.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews: The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log, Read About Comics, All Ages Reads, Sequential Tart, and Comics Waiting Room 3.0 Reviews
Misc: Read twenty-five pages of this book here.
Here the book discussed on the podcast Wicked Decent Learning as well.