July 29, 2020

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Birthright (Series Review)


Birthright (Series Review)
Written and Co-Created by Joshua Williamson
Illustrated and Co-Created by Andrei Bressan
Colors by Adriano Lucas
Letters by Pat Brosseau
Published by Image Comics

Birthright (which just wrapped up its 9th story arc) is an absolutely fantastic read. It's got consistent and consistently gorgeous, detailed, dynamic artwork.  And it's got action, adventure, family drama, humor, and more. It's a story that's also bursting with really rich ideas. Writer Joshua Williamson excels at genre mash-ups, and this is definitely one. This is probably reductive, but I'd say it's sort of like Lord of the Rings meets Kramer vs. Kramer meets The Fugitive. If that doesn't appeal to you, I don't think we can be friends.
[Note: This is a SPOILER review; I will be discussing the story in some detail]

Plot Synopsis

Young Mikey and his dad Aaron are out playing in a park, and just as Aaron is on the phone with his wife Wendy, Mikey wanders off into the woods and disappears. Aaron is terrified and the whole family searches and searches for Mikey, but they don’t find him. Time passes. Mikey‘s older brother Brennan is obsessed with finding him, and Wendy begins to wonder whether Aaron was somehow responsible for Mikey‘s disappearance.

Mikey is terrified too, but for a completely different reason. He has somehow gone through a portal and found himself in the land of Terrenos, a land of Orcs and Gideons (winged people) and Dragons and all manner of beasts. It’s also a land that is besieged by war, as it is ruled by the tyrannical God King Lore, who is opposed by a number of the populace. Among those who oppose him are Rook, a tough but kindly Orc who cares for a number of young Gideons and trains them for combat against their enemy. Much to the skepticism of Aya (a young Gideon), Rook takes in Mikey as he believes that Mikey is in fact the fulfillment of prophecy. Rook and others believe that Mikey is the great hero, the chosen one, who will defeat tyranny and bring peace and unity to Terrenos. 
Meanwhile, a year has gone by and things are falling apart for the family. Wendy has left Aaron because she holds him responsible for Mikey‘s disappearance, Aaron is a broken man, and Brennan is getting into fights at school. But they’re called down to a police station, for something pretty unusual. What they see is an enormous man, with long, dark hair and a beard, wearing leather clothes and armor. He looks like Conan the barbarian, but that’s not the weirdest part. No, the weirdest part is that he says he is in fact Mikey. Somehow, while only a year has passed on Earth, several decades ave passed on Terrence. He claims to have defeated the God King Lore, and that he had returned from Terrenos in order to fulfill an obligation to defeat five evil mages that threaten our world. 

Is he Mikey?  Somehow, he is (confirmed by fingerprint and DNA analysis). What about his claims to have defeated Lore, and to be back hunting down these five alleged war criminals?  And what about the demonic spirit in his mind that appears to somehow be tied to Lore? That part is a lot more complicated, and it’s something that Williamson and the rest of the creative team skillfully fill in over time.

Art and Storytelling

If you can find a way to successfully bring together multiple genres in a story, you're going to get my attention. Williamson is a terrific writer (you may know him from his long run on The Flash) who came up in independent comics writing terrifically entertaining, sometimes violent stories (like Nailbiter (my review here) and Ghosted. Birthright is an even more on-the-nose combination of genres as it literally involves two worlds. Terrenos is a high-fantasy world as you've come to expect, and Earth here is just a regular world, like the one we live in. Seeing Mikey as a comically large warrior with axes and swords on the streets of Chicago is meant to be fun and absurd. But if that's all it was, this story wouldn't be so great and I wouldn't love it as much as I do. Birthright is an incredibly entertaining story, but what makes it work as well as it does is that it's also a tragic one, and the emotional weight of the story feels as real as the Dragons and Orcs.

But apart from the really great ideas in the story (which I'll get to), Birthright is a gorgeously-told story that would not be what it is without the incredible and consistent art team that tells the story. Before even delving into the details of the art, I want to celebrate the fact that the artist team (line artist Andrei Bressan, colorist Adriano Lucas, and letterer Pat Brousseau) have just completed issue 45. In the modern era, that level of consistency is remarkably rare, and puts this book in some great company (Saga, East of West, Black Science). Having a team as talented as this provides a definitive look for the series. If drawn by someone else, it just wouldn't *be* Birthright
The Birthright art team has a formidable task. They need to be able to seamlessly move back and forth between two completely different sorts of worlds. Both must feel completely grounded and detailed, otherwise it doesn't work to truly convey the horror (for young Mikey) of being ripped out of our world and sent into another. Thankfully, the team is up to the task. Before Birthright I was completely unfamiliar with Bressan, but he's really impressed me over the years in Birthright as I think his work started off really strong and has only gotten better and more sophisticated. His depiction of our world feels very real. If there weren't any fantasy elements in this story, the Earth parts of the story would make for a compelling human drama.  Bressan's worlds have a high degree of verisimilitude in them. Earth feels mundane, and the various locations in the story have an authentic, lived-in feel to them. Conversely, the world of Terrenos, as fantastical as it is, also has a strong lived-in feel to it. The towns and castles are highly detailed, and we see the wear and tear on them and the terrible cost that decades of war has caused. As fantastical as it is, Terrenos feels as real as Earth does.  

That feeling of emotional realism is in no small part due to the work of Lucas. Lucas has a widely varying color palate that does such strong work in advancing the storytelling. Lucas makes what I consider to be an excellent storytelling choice. You know how in The Wizard of Oz, Kansas is black & white and Oz is vivid color?  Lucas doesn't do that here. While it might in some sense work to show Terrenos as a more vivid world with more exaggerated colors, that might also heighten the sense that somehow Mikey was away in a mythical, unreal place. No, what Lucas does is to use the same general color palate for Terrenos as he does for Earth. Granted, there's a lot more dragons and blood splatter on Terrenos, but both world feel equally real because of the color choices. Snow still looks like snow on both world, and the same is true for forests and deserts. There are more fantastical things to see on Terrenos, but Lucas' coloring succeeds in showing us that Terrenos is a very real, very terrible place.
Bressan's line work in this story is continually first-rate. I'd say he has a fairly "realistic" style, just in the sense that people basically look like people. It's not hyper-photo-realism (which I don't think would work as well) but human anatomy looks generally as it does in our world. Bressan does a fantastic job bringing all of these very different characters to life in highly distinguishable ways.  The people look distinct from one another, in body shape and size. And the non-human characters are given as much detail and personality as the humans in the story. Rook's personality really comes through, on many occasions in the story. Not surprisingly in a fantasy story, there's a ton of action and it's exceedingly well done. Bressan is a skilled storyteller - he's great at controlling pace of story; slowing things down for a heated argument between Wendy and Aaron, and speeding this up with an intense car chase. His action is engaging and visually really interesting, but never hard to follow.  In those tense moments, Bressan uses detailed facial acting and body language to get across the precise moods and feelings of the various characters. It's very precise, skillful work.

Brousseau's lettering throughout the story is also an important part of the storytelling. There's a lot of fun, engaging sound effects lettering that conveys terrific moments of drama and humor. And the lettering is additive in that it never feels at all separate from the story; it is the story, and every word balloon felt perfectly placed (and done so in some creative ways, like the tail of a word balloon curving behind a door, to go to the speaker out in a hallway). Touches like that make every aspect of Birthright a seamless and highly enjoyable storytelling experience

Prophecy and Propaganda
In addition to being a dramatic and entertaining story, Birthright plays with some ideas deconstructing the fantasy genre, and genre tropes generally. From the moment Mikey arrives in Terrenos, he is told by everyone around him that he is the "chosen one", the heroic figure that will rise up and free the world from tyranny. As the story shows over the course of many issues, Mikey did not simply take to this idea. He struggled a great deal. For a long time, he was just (understandably) very sad, and missed his family and his world.  He was a gentle, peaceful child, and initially recoiled against the very idea of killing. However, years of living a hard existence on Terrenos wore down this resistance, and Mikey became a skilled and see her some warrior. All the while, being fed the message, the propaganda, that he was the hero that was going to save the world. 

Everyone seem to buy into this idea, and they continued to battle against the forces of Lore because they believe that ultimately, the Savior was on their side and they were going to prevail. They had to prevail. Otherwise, what was the point of decades of bloodshed?  Eventually the world inside Terrenos reaches the point of a climactic battle between the forces of good against the forces of Lore, the forces of evil. As foretold in prophecy, Mikey himself went up against the God King Lore in battle. But then a funny thing happened: Mikey lost. It was clear when the two battled that there was no way that Mikey could in fact defeat Lore. 

But Lore didn’t kill Mikey. Williamson chose to have something far more interesting happen at this point. To this point, when anyone has ever seen Lore, he is a horrifying, monstrous, almost skeletal figure. A being of nightmare, befitting the terror that he has brought to Terrenos. But Lore showed Mikey his true form, that of an older man who looked remarkably like Mikey. Lore perpetuated the myth that he was a terrifying figure, when in reality he was just a man (shades of “The Wizard of Oz” here, I think). 

Lore did not want to defeat Mikey, imprison him or humiliate him. No, Lore wanted to do something far more fundamental and maybe cruel, but also freeing. From his perspective, he wanted Mikey to see the truth. According to Lore, his goal has been to bring peace to Terrenos. While Mikey has a hard time believing this, Lore shows him the paradise that he wants Terrenos to become. 

At any other time, Mikey might have rejected Lore’s words out of hand as more lies and deception, but think about what has just happened. What do you do it for decades and decades you’re told you’re the hero, you’re the savior, you’re going to defeat evil and bring freedom to the land, and what if it isn’t true? The entire reason Mikey is there, and has for decades (from his perspective) been training and fighting and suffering, was because of a prophecy that everyone seems to believe in. But Mikey couldn’t defeat Lore. In this moment, all of the faith and belief and propaganda that and held up and driven Mikey fell away. It’s no wonder Mikey was susceptible to what Lore was saying; everything he had believed up until that point and just collapsed like a house of cards. 

At that point, Mikey wanted to make sense of the world. Is Lore really the hero in this story? I’m not sure, he has undertaken some pretty cruel actions during the course of this tale. And he clearly has his own agenda. But, as it is well expressed by other characters in the story, both sides of the conflict have committed terrible atrocities. Many innocent people have died in actions taken by the ostensible “good guys”.  Mikey knows this, which is why he willingly allows a “Nevermind” (an intangible being that is connected to Lore) to enter his own mind. Plagued by doubt, he considers the idea that he might actually have been on the wrong side the entire time, and that the way of Lore night bring peace to Terrenos and Earth. 

In this way, the creative team shows us that there are many parallels between Terrenos and our world. In the same way that the art convinces us that the world of Terrenos is just as real as our world, the actions of its inhabitants also convinces us. This fantasy realm may have magic and dragons, but it is not a simple world of good and evil. The good guys may not be as good as you think, the bad guys may have some really good points, and everybody has blood on their hands.

The team here is wrestling with some really interesting ideas in relation to faith, belief, and the dangers of propaganda, messianic figures, and taking scripture literally. Christianity is, of course, built on the idea of a Savior figure, that will ultimately lead the righteous into the Kingdom of Heaven. People have taken this faith quite literally, and over the course of many centuries committed terrible atrocities in the name of Christianity and in the name of this belief. But the ideas and the promise of when people are going to be saved and taken to the kingdom of heaven are smartly kept pretty undefined in scripture. Where people have gotten themselves into trouble over the years is when they have made a prediction of a specific date or time when the rapture or the end of the world or judgment day will in fact take place. Once you start getting into specifics, your belief can be proved empirically wrong. 

In Terrenos, The belief in a savior figure that will defeat the tyrant and save the world is a similar set of beliefs and functions that, as a faith, motivates and gives people comfort. However, it becomes more complicated when you’re actually convinced that a specific person is in fact that Savior. If Mikey is the hero, well then at some point he is in fact going to have to deliver on the promise of prophecy. 
Putting your faith in something that can be proven wrong is a difficult basis for a set of beliefs. It’s not just Mikey that would feel unmoored and without purpose. Anyone who ever put any stock in the belief in the Savior would also similarly be left wondering, “was everything that I have done pointless”?  

Another fascinating aspect of the idea of myth and propaganda that is contained within Birthright, is the fact that the entire idea of the prophecy of someone coming to defeat Lore was created by Lore's own daughter, Mastema. She was one of the five mages that fled from Terrenos to Earth, as she was on the side of those that battled against her father, but it was clear to her and her fellow magic practitioners, that nothing they were doing was going to work and that there was no defeating Lore, and the only thing left to do was leave and close the barrier behind them permanently so that no one could ever cross over from Terrenos to Earth again. She created the myth of the Savior to give something to the people to believe in and hopefully inspire them to show resolve and courage in the face of tyranny. When she learned what has happened in her absence, she was surprised with the way in which people took these processes so literally. I found this to be another clever critique of the idea that scripture is in anyway meant to be taken as literal truth, as opposed to stories that are meant to teach and inspire. 

The fact is, Terrenos has already had a savior figure that has conquered the evil that came before him and taken control of the realm. That figure is Lore himself. *He* was the chosen one. Whatever figures had controlled the realm before Lore, he conquered them and took control. He is the messianic figure of prophecy, and he is a tyrant. Lore is the inverse of Mikey. Mikey represents the worst case scenario if a prophecy turns out not to be true. But  Lore represents a worst-case scenario if a prophecy does turn out to be true. As history has shown us, figures that have been swept to power in a messianic fervor, religious or otherwise, rarely lead to freedom, democracy, and progress. In this way the story reminds me of Dune, where our hero is Paul Atreides who turns out be the Kwisatz Haderach of myth, and he becomes the leader of the galaxy and belief in him leads to a Jihad, and a great deal of war and death, to the point that Paul eventually ends up fleeing from the monster that he has created. I think a lesson here is that successful messianic figures are even scarier than unsuccessful ones.

Family and Tragedy

One of the other driving ideas in Birthright is that a family, and the ways in which family can be really complicated and fragile, and can also be destructive to itself and to others. 

One big idea that’s really well illustrated in Birthright is the way in which tragedy can affect a family. Obviously a tragedy can have all sorts of consequences both practical and emotional, but an undercurrent of this story shows is quite clearly that tragedy may exacerbate the problems that are present in the family, but doesn’t create those problems. Typically, they already exist. Even prior to Mikey‘s disappearance, Wendy resented the way in which Aaron frequently put her in the position of being the bad guy, the one who had to enforce the rules. Aaron got to be the fun parent, and Wendy was forced to be the responsible parent because she knew that someone had to. She didn’t entirely trust Aaron to be responsible before Mikey’s disappearance, so after he disappeared those feelings of mistrust only became more acute. If Wendy and Aaron had a more coequal parenting dynamic I can imagine that it would have been a lot less likely for Wendy to believe that Aaron was somehow involved in Mikey‘s disappearance, or at a minimum, thank that he was grossly negligent or careless with regards to Mikey‘s well-being.  I think about this in regards to something I’ve heard said with respect to adultery; adultery is typically not the cause of a problem in a relationship, it’s really more of a symptom of other problems in the relationship.
For Brennan, Mikey‘s disappearance simultaneously upset him but also reinforced to him his own feelings of inadequacy, as whether Mikey was around or he was not around, Brennan felt like Mikey was always his parents’ favorite and got all of their attention. When Mikey was gone, Brennan felt like everything was all about Mikey in his absence, and now that Mikey has returned as an adult in this insane situation, Brennan continues to be upset because he feels like everything is still all about Mikey.

The story shows us the ways in which trauma changes families in irreversible ways. Mikey  goes away a little kid and comes back an adult, one who has clearly experienced a lot of trauma. The family may never get there a little boy back, but as the series progresses you can see the family trying to reshape and reconnect into something new. I think that’s the best you can hope for when something terrible happens to a family; you can’t go back to how it was, you just have to stick together and try to figure out what the new normal is. Birthright does a really great job of addressing that point. 

For Aaron, Mikey‘s disappearance and reappearance have magnified for him his own feelings of inadequacy as a father, and the tremendous amount of resentment and anger that he has towards his own father and the ways in which he felt like his father failed him. Aaron did everything he possibly could to be a different kind of father than his father was, and he still ended up being the one who lost their son. Aaron’s father turns out to be a pretty key figure in Birthright. His father is Samael, who is another one of the mages that fled from Terrenos to Earth. Samael was only around sporadically as a father (because he was off fighting in Terrenos), and Aaron swore he would be a better, more present father than his father was. In this, he seems to have succeeded, But that may actually be why he was so much of the “fun parent”. He’s just been fighting to make sure not to be the kind of parent his own father was. 

The story presents an interesting parallel which shows us that sometimes the legacy of family is inevitability. Aaron tried so hard not to be the kind of father that his father was. However, the family couldn’t ultimately escape their connection to Terrenos. Similarly, Mastema hated and resented her father Lore (even though Lore tried to shield her from war and other things he did). She viewed her father as a cruel tyrant and join the rebellion against him, however she has ended up being very much her father‘s daughter as not only is she very much willing to commit atrocities in the name of her own cause, but she may be even more of a megalomaniac than her father is.

Conclusion 

Birthright is a rich story that works as an entertaining adventure and genre story, but is also working on a number of different levels. It's a story about childhood and family, and religion and prophecy. Most of all, it's just a really great read.