February 12, 2012

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Princeless Volume 1 (Issues 1-4)

Written by Jeremy Whitley
Illustrated by M. Goodwin
Action Lab

It's not easy being a princess.  You have to wait for a prince to save you, and then marry the guy, whether you like him or not.  Adrienne knows her fate and isn't happy about it one bit.  When she, like her sisters before her, is locked in a tower with a dragon for a guard, enough is enough.  She's going to take on the role usually reserved for men and become the prince that saves her sister.  What happens when a girl tries to challenge the accepted roles of men and women, without really thinking about anything beyond living her own life?  Find out in these early adventures of Princeless!

From the opening scene, which details the stereotypical princes story and proceeds to tear it apart, piece by piece, you know you're in for something different.  Whitley has read the same stories we all did as we grew up and is looking to attack that line of thinking.  But rather than do it in a ham-fisted, domineering manner, this story is less about how we portray women in fiction and more about how Adrienne just wants to be her own person, with her own life, free to make her own decisions.  She wants this for her sisters, too, and that drives the action of the book. The fact that this desire just so happens to fly in the face of convention and the gender stereotypes we reinforce on an almost daily basis in children's and young adult fiction (then finish off in comics, books, television, and movies for adults) is a natural outgrowth of that desire.

As a result, instead of getting a screed with a story lurking around somewhere, the story in Princeless is the focus.  That's why this one works so well for me.  Adrienne's desires are real, her questions are real, and while most people in our society aren't trying to escape from castles on flying dragons, her struggle for individuality when parents and other authority figures want anything but is all too real and should register with any young adult that reads this comic, regardless of gender.  The adult reader can also appreciate this idea, especially since gender assumptions and expectations don't magically disappear at eighteen, no matter how we might wish that to be.

In these first four issues, which see Adrienne work her away free of her prison, fight her father's guards, and pick up another young woman with similar restraints and desires (and a *really* big hammer) as they work together to start rescuing Adrienne's other sisters.  As we see in the final pages, however, this task is going to be far from easy, even taking away how her sisters might react to the non-traditional rescue.

Like any good first story arc, Whitley introduces us to the world, showing that it operates like a pretty standard fantasy world.  It's not terribly interesting in that regard, as we have kings, kingdoms, dragons, and the like, nothing we haven't seen before.  It's what Whitley does with the world that makes this story sing, creating characters that feel modern without seeming out of place, and using Adrienne and her companion Bedella to question why this world has to operate as it does.  Along the way, they have some high drama and neat comedic bits to offset the seriousness.  The fighting in issues three and four is particularly well done, I think, because it doesn't try to turn either character into a Buffy-like superheroine.  They can fight, but it's not something that comes naturally to either of them--at least not yet.

Perhaps the most interesting choice, however, is in the characterization of Adrienne's parents, the King and Queen.  Whitley could easily have made them one-dimensional, using them as the villains of the piece.  But as we progress through the first story arc, both are given some good scenes that add depth and make them think about their actions.  They're still clearly wrong, but neither are they paper-thin bad guys who must be vanquished.  It leaves room for redemption and understanding, should Whitley go that route.

M. Goodwin's artwork on Princess is excellent.  Using a style that has some echoes of manga but is not a direct lifting of the Japanese art style (such as an OEL manga like Nightschool), all of the characters in Princeless, from the main protagonist to her dragon to the guards get time spent on making them look different and expressive.  I love the looks on the faces of Adrienne and Bedella and the dragon in particular. Goodwin can say a lot with just a few lines and Whitley smartly gets out of the way to let the artist do so.  This comic shows a strong harmony between script and art, fully illustrating the world and using a style that evokes a cartoon without being cartoony.  I hope that Goodwin stays on the book for its entire run.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one last cool thing about Princess:  Our heroine is colored and drawn to look black.  How often do we see a strong female character of color in a leading role?  While race does not have any impact on the storyline (Adrienne could be colored white and not change anything, at least to me), I appreciate that there's been an attempt to show that all princesses aren't so pale they resemble the page they were printed on.  It would be nice to see Whitley explore this a bit in the future since he's already gone after many of the other princess tropes here in the early issues.

Princess is a great indie comic that deserves to have circulation on a level with any major publisher comic.  It would make a perfect library book, as the story is fast-paced, easy to read, and fit for an all-age audience.  The first trade paperback will be out soon--April if I heard correctly--but you can read this series now in single issue form at Graphicly if you are part of the digital comics reading crowd.  However you choose to do so, you really need to read Princeless.  It's one of the best comics I've encountered from a micro publisher in some time.

Big thanks to Action Lab for sending me a review copy of this comic.  If you are interested in having your comic reviewed by me, please contact me at trebro@gmail.com.