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Review: ‘Beetle & The Hollowbones’

Beetle & The Hollowbones
Writer/artist: Aliza Layne
Atheneum Books; $21.99

Like a lot of teenagers used to do, Beetle spends her time hanging out at the local mall. However, she doesn’t do so for the standard reasons, like there being nothing more exciting to do in her small town, or that her options are limited by the fact that she can’t yet drive. No, she spends so much time at the mall because her best friend, Blob Ghost, is forced to haunt the mall by supernatural circumstances they have no memory of, and can’t get past the parking lot without hitting an invisible barrier.

This conflict pretty perfectly encapsulate webcomics creator Aliza Layne’s debut graphic novel Beetle & The Hollowbones, which is something like an urban fantasy (or, perhaps, a suburban fantasy), but turned on its head; rather than couching certain fantastical elements in a modern day city, Beetle is an entire old-school fantasy world of witches and goblins and dragons organized along the template of a modern, mundane life.

So, for example, Beetle, a green-skinned, pointy-eared goblin with a long tail, gets dropped off at the ‘Allowstown Mall by her witch grandmother, who flies her there on a broom. Once inside the mall, she performs a summoning ritual to call forth Blob Ghost, who looks like a smiling, floating gelatin dessert, and they wander the monster-filled stores like Worms of Endearment and Bell Books and Candle. There’s nothing close to a human being in sight, ‘Allowstown being populated by creatures that look like they stepped out of an art student’s yokai sketchbook.

Beetle is technically a witch-in-training, being home-schooled by her grandmother, who is also the town witch. But, being a goblin, she’s being trained in goblin magic, which isn’t as pretty, powerful, or exciting as sorcery. That’s the type of spectacular magic that fills the anime and manga that Beetle likes, and which her one-time best friend Kat Hollowbones moved away to study at a magic academy.

Kat is coming back to town, though, where she is being apprenticed to her aunt, Marla Hollowbones, a mean and powerful sorceress and part of an old and influential ‘Allowstown family, all of whom resemble skeletal animal people (Kat, for example, looks like a cross between a cat and human skeleton; Marla, meanwhile, has the long neck and pointy, beaked skull of an enormous waterfowl perched atop her large, skeletal body).

That in and of itself is a source of great stress for Bettle, who is a boiling cauldron of unresolved feelings for her old friend, the most immediate of which involve her feelings of inadequacy and abandonment. But it gets worse and worse: Marla and Beetle’s grandmother are rivals, and the former wants the latter’s job. Oh, and Marla has also purchased the mall, and plans to tear it down so she can rebuild her ancestral home on its grounds.

What happens to a ghost when the mall they’re haunting and can’t leave is torn down…? Blob Ghost, whose non-verbal “dialogue” comes in the form of white cartoons and symbols drawn on black dialogue bubbles, explains in their peculiar way, a drawing of Blob Ghost with x’s for eyes, being vaporized. Finding a way to free Blob Ghost, which had always been a long-term plan for the two friends, suddenly becomes extremely urgent, a matter of life and death…or undeath and death, I guess…?

Blob Ghost’s manner of speaking is just one of the many inventive, imaginative pleasures to be found in Layne’s book. The character designs are also quite amazing, deep and rich enough to recall the settings of touchstones like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Spirited Away, in that there is no such thing as a boring background character, but even each of Layne’s creations are rather peculiar, defying easy categorization.

For example, when Beetle takes the “wheel” of her grandmother’s broom for the first time, they fly through a crowd of ghosts, of the generic, white sheet variety. But the tops of their sheets terminate in a pair of points, giving them a cartoon bat-like appearance, their simple circle eyes and jagged mouths are red, and beneath the hem of of their sheets are legs in stockings that end in bright red high heels. Almost every living thing is a little like that; familiar enough to fit into a broad category of familiar creature, but rendered so idiosyncratically as to be their very own things.

Beetle & The Hollowbones is a pretty much perfect middle-school graphic novel, but beyond its appeal to its target audience, it’s an extremely rewarding read for anyone interested in comics and their construction, thanks to Layne’s creative character designs, clever lettering, and innovative ways of telling he story.

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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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