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Review: ‘Kerry and the Knight of the Forest’

Kerry and the Knight of the Forest
Writer/artist: Andi Watson
RH Graphic; $20.99

Cartoonist Andi Watson’s Kerry and the Knight of the Forest begins with a fairly standard fairy tale premise. The young Kerry is in the middle of an all-important task that he can’t allow himself to be distracted or delayed from completing: He has just recovered the medicine necessary to heal his parents from their fevers, and now all he has to do to save them is stay on the road and not stray into the forest.

And, as is usually the case in such fairy tales, he of course does the one thing that he shouldn’t, and leaves the road for the forest. In Kerry’s defense, he had a pretty good reason. He sees a mysterious child in the trees, and the child promises him that there’s a shortcut through the forest that will help him get home faster.

The opening sequenceand the dark, treacherous forest settingaside, Watson’s imaginative graphic novel shares little else with familiar fairy tales. The forest is filled with strange creatures, many of which are still stranger than your average fantasy monsters, and some of the main characters are surprisingly complex, with subtly conveyed conflicts between them and weighty moral issues that need to be wrestled with before the story can reach its resolution.

Once in the woods, Kerry is almost immediately, hopelessly lost, and help is hard to find. He rescues a talking, tortoise-sized, one-eyed snail from a giant blackbird, but even though it owes Kerry its life, it’s reluctant to be seen talking to him, telling him little more than to look for “the Old Knight of The Road.”

Kerry eventually finds the knight, but it doesn’t look much like the man in shining armor seated atop a horse he expected. The knight is a “Waystone,” and it is a large, floating, vaguely coffin-shaped rock with a single eye (like almost everything else in the forest, the Waystone just has one large eye). After an evil spirit infested the forest, driving out all of the birds and butterflies, the Waystone, whose job it was to guide travellers through the forest, went into something between retirement and hibernation, as no one dared travel the forest anymore. At least, not until Kerry stumbled along.

The pair share a series of dangerous adventures, as various servants of the evil spirit try to waylay Kerry, including a will o’ the wisp, a horde of thorny eyeballs that live underground, giant tree creatures, ghostly children like the one that drew Kerry into the forest in the first place, and more. Throughout, Kerry is continually tempted to try and help some of the forest’s monsters who seem like they might need it, despite warnings from the Waystone that doing so will increase the danger or slow them down.

Kerry’s empathy proves to be an asset rather than a liability during his adventure, and there too Watson’s tale differs from the basic fairy tale formula: Sure, breaking a rule might have got Kerry into trouble in the first place, but ignoring the wisdom of his powerful magical benefactor to try to help others turns out for the best.

An experienced comics creator whose breakthrough work Skeleton Key is now some 25 years old, Watson uses a simplified style that has only grown increasingly stripped-down over the years, to the point that there’s an element of the calligraphic to his characters now, and  his pages can sometimes resemble the thumbnails or sketches that some comics artists create when planning a story, albeit with assured lines and fully realized textures, as if Watson has now so mastered his style that his artwork often looks like he jumped right from roughs to finishes, skipping the steps in between. The style here is very close to that of his more recent work for younger readers, like Glister, Princess at Midnight, and Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula, although, perhaps owing to the fact that it is set almost entirely in the natural world, The Knight of the Forest is even more simplified still.

Though Kerry is the most complicated-looking character in the bookhe even has two eyes!he often looks as if he’s the most abstract one, as well, as the inhabitants of the forest are all more finely textured and amazingly expressive. The highly emotive “performances” that Watson is able to wring out of characters that are basically just an eyeball embedded in one shape or another are really quite remarkable.

Watson also uses color to great effect throughout, as Kerry leaves the pink and green “outside” world for the forest, where everything seems to grow darker and more monochrome, although the colors change from scene to scene, from the dark gray of the underground to a sickly green in the swamp to the browns of a more heavily wooded area where the tree people lay an ambush.

Younger readers might not be able to name and notice every aspect of Watson’s deceptively powerful artwork, but they’ll definitely feel its effects. At nearly 270 pages, Kerry and the Knight of the Forest has the heft of a novel, but it’s a fast-paced, breezy read, an epic adventure compressed to take place in the space of a single night and to be experienced by readers in a single sitting.

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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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