Thursday, July 5, 2012

Aesop's Ark #1


Written by J. Torres
Illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer
Monkeybrain Comics

We know of the stories of the people inside the Ark, but what of the animals?  J. Torres and Jennifer L. Meyer begin a series that spins tales of those down in the cargo holds as the ship moved steadily on in the flood, successfully merging a host of traditions in another of the Monkeybrain Comics debut titles.

Just about everything in Aesop’s Ark evokes the strong tradition of oral folktales and legends, regardless of the cultural background.  Stories of humanized animals abound in traditions from Native Americans, African Americans, and various European Cultures and all were designed to help youngers both entertained and educated, merging the need to answer questions about the world around them with moral lessons that could help them stay alive in worlds that were full of dangers.

Torres gets this concept, and embraces it wholeheartedly here.  Right on the credits page, he encourages the reader to “Listen.  And Learn.”  And anyone who is smart will do so.  Torres is not content to merely copy that which we’ve seen/read in those ancient cultures he evokes.  Judging by the first issue, our stories are going to have strong ties to the modern world and some of its cultural ills.  For example, this story is about how the selfishness that pervades Western society can have real dangers and demonstrates the value of sharing the burden.  It’s a lesson that all ages could learn from, making it a perfect topic for this all-ages comic.

In the wrong hands, Torres’ idea could come off as moralizing, preachy, and heavy-handed.  However, he is careful to make sure that while the lesson is clear, it does not detract from telling a good story.  That is what the best folktales do, and Torres understands that.  There is a precarious balance to be maintained when using allegories, but I sense that the balance is just right here, though only future issues will be able to show us that for certain.

While I would happily read Torres’ fables in prose form, this is a comic book, and had Meyer’s visuals clashed with the story, I would not have enjoyed this nearly as much as I did.  Fortunately, she’s a good match for the goal of this series.  Working mostly in monochrome pencil, Meyer’s work reminds me of something you would find in a set of children’s illustrated novels.  There is a smooth and gentle style to the panels, as everything blends together, with panels existing but not protruding into the narrative.  Some even assist the reader in understanding when an even is taking place, such as placing the turtle’s flashback on a scroll.

I like how the fable itself is told in vibrant color, reversing the usual pattern.  Instead of the fiction within the fiction being grayed out (or, as we see in some manga, placed on a black background), Torres’ fable is shown in the only page that’s in full color, using the same style and panel construction as the main story.

Everything about Meyer’s art blends, from the characters to the backgrounds to the hand-lettering, which moves as she needs it to for the story to be shown.  Though this is obviously a digital comic, the whole thing feels very homemade, which fits because Aesop’s Ark is working from playbooks going back to the early days of language.

Aesop’s Ark won’t be for everyone.  It’s a relaxed pace that’s designed to appeal to children and features a message, which could turn some off the idea.  However, for those, like me, who love oral storytelling and its traditions, finding a comic like this is a real treasure.  I look forward to reading more of Aesop’s Ark and seeing what new stories and lessons Torres and Meyer have in

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