May 14, 2017

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Afar by del Duca and Seaton Dreams up a Great Story

Written by Leila del Duca
Illustrated by Kit Seaton
Published by Image Comics

A young woman who dreams of leaving her family's nomadic life begins to literally dream of being elsewhere, finding herself transported to other realms when she sleeps. With dangers lurking in the waking and dreaming world, the cost of Boetema's decisions in both places take center stage in this gorgeous, thoughtful story that hopefully is the start of much more.

The premise of Afar is one that's close to my heart. Like Boetema, I dream in complete worlds and sometimes it makes it hard for me to get rest. I don't think I astral project, but when I am a part of the dream, it takes complete control of me. I can be there for moments, days, or even years, all during what is probably no more than a few minutes of REM dreaming. Seeing del Duca and Seaton bring this concept to life was pretty exciting to me, especially since they take the concept and really do some amazing things. 

We've read the "dreams are real" plot before--it's not new--but the pair add elements to it that make this graphic novel stand out. Too often we'd have pitiable white boy/white girl in a bad situation who wishes they were elsewhere. Instead, Boetema is the daughter of migrant workers who can barely keep a roof over the heads of the family. They aren't cruel or uncaring parents, but their actions, like wearing out their welcome as we open the comic, have consequences.

Similarly, while Boetema expresses extreme frustration at her brother, Inotu, he's not an anchor on their lives or boring or spiteful. Inotu isn't as smart as his sister, but he loves her deeply and is willing to take risks for her. That means that we are grounded in Boetema's real life. We want her to succeed in her dream worlds, but not at the expense of her physical one. This might be the most important difference for me--I'm hard pressed to think of a story such as this where the protagonist's mundane life is as vibrant, exciting, and important to the reader as the fantasy one.

Boetema's normal life.
I think my favorite part of Afar is that there are so many parallels and echoes within the structure. Boetema's parents keep moving, Boetema and Inotu keep moving, and the characters that Boetema possesses in her dreams are also on the move. Boetema's decisions in her waking life impact on Inotu, nearly getting him killed. Her impetuous decisions in one of the other realms also cause dire consequences. At the same time, however, it's clear that sometimes you have to make the best decision you can think of in the moment, and it's never easy. That's just real life--and the creative really drives home the realism, even though we're firmly in fantasy territory, even in the mundane world, which, while similar, is not our own.

The worlds themselves are spectacular. Even those we see only briefly, when Boetema is passing from realm to realm, feel complete and ripe to have stories told in them. Of course, I'm partial to the one with the green cats, but we get disembodied shapes, cloud worlds, bi-pedal bugs, and so many others. I don't know if we will get to see more of these creations in subsequent volumes, but I certainly hope so!
Nice kitty!
Making these worlds feel so alive is a credit to having two great artists working on the book. Leila del Luca may be familiar to some readers as the artist on Shutter, a book with fantastic visuals. It's no surprise to me that when moving to plot and scripting, her mind conceived of such great concepts and fully-formed backgrounds for the characters. I was completely unfamilar with Kit Seaton, but after reading this book, I can't wait to see more from her. Doing all of the artistic work--linework, colors, and letters--Seaton is able to seamlessly switch between the worlds, giving them their own distinctive look, feel, and even style. I want to break those down, at least as best I can without being an artist myself, because I think being able to change your style, even just a little, allows a storyteller to craft something that stands out. (Think of all the different ways Erica Henderson switches styles to make references in Squirrel Girl, for example. That would never work if she wasn't able to vary her linework.) Seaton's primary took in this area is color, but it also shows up in other ways as well.

For the main world, Seaton primarily uses a landscape of burnt oranges, tans, browns, and dark blue, depending on the scene being portrayed, which meshes with the arid climate of Boetema's home. Within this world, populated by characters of color, there is a great variety of skin tones as well. (I wish I didn't have to highlight this, but how many times have we seen comics where all the black characters had the exact same coloring?) Everything is drawn to echo our own world, yet not match it exactly. We can see that the people Boetema and Inotu live with have grand mosaics, patterned pottery, and other little details that make up a culture. Each is intricately detailed, with Seaton refusing to skimp on details. If you could possibly make out a face from the reader's perspective, then she draws the entire face, not a blob.

When Boetema and Inotu change cities, there's an increase in opulence, as befits a larger community, but the basics are the same. We can clearly tell we're in the same land, just a different section. The buildings appear larger, the people more varied in their appearance and the general sense of scope and scale are clearly captured--all without slowing down the plot, because Seaton's visuals give us this impression. There's no need for del Luca to force exposition into the characters' mouths.

Look at that world-building!

The first otherworlds we encounter are colored dramatically differently. An underwater scene is shaded in red, not a traditional blue, while the big cats are in vibrant, clashing green and purple. Both are drawn in the same level of detail as the normal world, so it's the coloring here that gives these sections their own feel, rather than the line art. A parable about a mythical lizard is portrayed with a yellow background and evokes cave drawings, though more advanced, evoking a feeling of ancient legend visually, even as Boetema tells the tale. Meanwhile, Boetema's meeting with others who astral project has an almost pastel feel to it. Seaton backs off the starkness of the black lines, softening the effects and making it feel as though we really are in a dreamland. When it's time to go back to Boetema's reality, the reader's eye is easily able to switch between them. It's really stellar storytelling.

We don't get a drastic artistic shift when Boetema goes to the world where she puts lives at risk. The characters are closer to human, though they have distinctive facial features and an extra finger on each hand. However, the landscape is vastly different, with rocks and trees, and so the background images are less precisely defined. The coloring also uses browns, but with a heavy dose of reds. The clothing of the realm are also distinctive, looking more like space suits than the traditional garb of Boetema and Inotu. Though the linework isn't shifted (as in the case of the fable), there's a definite attempt to clearly highlight the differences, even as the plot shows that regardless of her physical appearance, Boetema is the same young woman inside.

There's so much to like about Afar, and I'm very glad I picked up a copy of Leila when I saw her at a signing. The cast of characters are engaging quickly, they feel like real people instead of being pawns to a plot, the art is high quality, and, perhaps best of all, you can read this on its own, even as you hope for a longer series.

If you didn't pick this up yet, give it a shot. This especially belongs in school libraries, where its positive message and representation are sorely needed. Anyone who loves fantasy is going to find themselves in their own realm of enjoyment!