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Review: Princess Ugg, vol. 1

Princess Ugg Vol. 1
Written and drawn by Ted Naifeh
Oni Press, $15.99

Ted Naifeh, the cartoonist creator of the charming Courtney Crumrin comics, has returned with a new heroine who has little in common with her noseless, sharp-featured, black-and-white forebearer. Her name is Princess Ulga—”Ugg” is a derisive nickname her peers at Princess School have assigned her—and she hails from a snowy mountain kingdom which seems a confused mixture of Scottish (in accent), Norse or Viking (they fight frost giants, the king keeps an undying eagle named Odin and Ulga’s mother affectionally calls her a “berserker”), and a more pure fantasy, prehistoric culture (Ulga has a pet mastodon, and the kingdom’s name is a portmanteau of Conan’s homeland of  Cimmeria and the word “grim”).

While she is the perfect product of her mountain warrior culture, she doesn’t exactly fit in with the princesses of the more Medieval/Early Renaissance kingdoms of the lowlands, where Princess School is located, and the rest of the student body falls into a more typical Disney Princess model of royalty, albeit cut with a bit of Mean Girls-style girl-on-girl rivalry. Ulga clearly doesn’t belong, and almost everyone—her father, her father’s talking eagle/narrator, the teachers, the students, Ulga herself—knows it, but she struggles to fit in and make it through each challenging day.

Why? Well, in large part because it gives Naifeh a great premise for a fish-out-of-water comedy, a fun fairy tale culture clash in which the sort of heroine from one type of fantasy fiction struggles to jam her square peg self into the round hole of another, more prevalent form of fantasy fiction. Fun and funny, yes, but with a large dose of angsty teenage drama on the part of poor Ulga.

But there’s another reason. Ulga’s queen mother, who died from a wound sustained during a typical glorious victory over the frost giants, was sick of the cycle of violence and killing her people were trapped in, and she wanted her daughter to learn the art of “diplomacy” from the lands below to solve the ancient and intractable conflict. Learning how to hold a teacup and do needlepoint are just part of the process.

A sympathetic teacher wants to help and, in order to teach her the fine art of diplomacy, he gives her a particular assignment: Befriend Lady Julifer, Queen Bee of Ulga’s class.

The result is a pleasing, if unusual, mixture of a teenage school comedy filled with reappropriated and reorganized fantasy tropes.

Naifeh’s artwork is as different here from much of what he’s drawn before as his heroine is from Courtney Crumrin. His figures are rounder, fuller and more realistically detailed and his settings all more elaborately designed. It’s also all in full color, provided by Warren Wucinich (who also provides letters for the book), save for a few flashback scenes set in Ulga’s mountain kingdom, which Naifeh watercolors himself.

Verbally and visually then, it’s as accomplished as anything else in Naifeh’s already strong body of work, and seems to have the sort of broad appeal that should earn it a large and appreciative audience among boys and girls, young and old.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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