Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Mystic" volume 2 #1-4

Perhaps the creatively most interesting part of the Marvel’s acquisition by Disney so far, was the company’s decision to relaunch the “Crossgen” imprint. Conceived as a mainstream alternative to DC and Marvel, the original Mark Alessi business venture unceremoniously wrapped up in 2004, before the still new publishing venture really endeared itself to any kind of significant audience. The company’s assets were subsequently bought out by Disney, chiefly with the goal of rebranding “Abadazad”, a late in the day Crossgen book as a series of children’s storybooks. Following the 2009 Disney/Marvel merger, there was little clamor for the publishing arm to return to characters broadly defined by Alessi’s original plan for the Crossgen universe, with most of the comics fans chiefly preoccupied with the eventual plans regarding the original Disney characters, and by the extension Muppet related projects.

Thus, there was little reaction to be heard when the company announced the return to some of the Crossgen properties, particularly as the announced four issue mini-series seemed calculated to test the market’s pulse in the safest possible way cost wise. That the shape of the market has gotten so restrictive and conservative that the relaunches no longer warrant even traditional trade paperback friendly six-issue arcs, for fear of cancellation due to the lack of the retailer’s confidence and general reader disinterest in the little promoted and underdeveloped new titles. Considering the recent news of several more mini-series cancelled few issues shy of their projected length is reason enough to understand why the company didn’t even toy with the idea of launching “Sigil”, “Ruse” and “Mystic” as ongoings.

Yet despite these properties pretty much being the action adventure comic book ciphers to the existing audience (with the exception of “Ruse” that has garnered attention outside the circle of the original Crossgen readers), even back in 2004 Marvel was much more interested in extending the offer for collaboration with some of the talent involved with them. With Tony Bedard perhaps the most famous of the writing talents that have come to prominence under Allesi’s watch, the artistic part of the equation has proven invaluable to the look of some of the best looking Marvel books for years since. Both Joshua (“Meridian”) Middleton and the more controversial Greg (“Sojourn”) Land made their names working on the company’s titles, but more importantly, Steve Epting and Butch (“Ruse”) Guice were some of the veterans that blossomed under the traditional genre constrains into even greater craftsman, which along with the presence of talents such as Mike Perkins and Jim Cheung really helped define Marvel’s house style into the clear, well crafted look some of their best drawn books pose even today.

Interestingly, the current Crossgen relaunch is primarily writer led, with the greatest prominence given the only original Crossgen contributor Mark (“Kingdom come”, “the Flash”)Waid, who relaunched “Ruse” with a new artist, while Mike (“Lucifer”, “X-Men: Legacy”) Carey and G. Willow (“Air”) Wilson working on the other two titles. And while Brandon Peterson is nowhere near “Mystic” this time around, the Egypt-based creator was paired with the somewhat less prominent, but apparently more reliable David (“Fallen angel”) Lopez, whose style is very completely different, yet complementary to the aforementioned computer oriented artist. Lopez is first and foremost a traditional penciller, working with his brother Alvaro to achieve a look that is closer to the animated cells images than his previous work on, for example “Catwoman”. Yet for all of the innovation that his brother uses to highlight his soft pencils, David is committed to simply working from the script in a fairly conventional, if somewhat more subtle fashion.
That is not to say that few of the characters ever seem static and detached, the way they appear in many a action oriented artist’s more showy work, but this seems to be at least a choice prompted by Wilson’s script. The primarily teenage cast is simply so giddy, earnest and expressive, that even the sternest of the adults manage a range of emotions conveyed primarily through Lopez’s character work. In a way, such spirited reactions seem akin to some of the manga character types, but beyond the same basic idea, there is little in Lopez’s work that belies a direct Japanese influence.

Namely, if this interpretation of “Mystic” is inspired by shojo, what registers in it’s pages is a much more well thought out product, that corresponds with the reader on it’s own terms, and not simply as a collection of appropriated story beats from another school of cartooning. Because, this 2011 Crossgen revamp is nothing if not well thought out, using the loosest foundation of the original title, but quickly establishing itself as it’s own project primarily due to the stylistic choice involved. As a writer, Wilson approaches the world building from the point of view of the new readers, throwing out bits and pieces of the setting’s magic and mathematics, but is ever mindful to keep the city of Hyperion as archetypal as possible, making it easy for the reader to view it as a modern day metropolis, masked by just enough background exotics to justify the fantasy tag. This is very important considering the political undertones that are at the heart of the story, mimicking such contemporary topics as Arab spring and social unrest that will stay a global hot topic for much longer then they seemed only a year ago.

And yet, in order to make all of these disparate ideas work, Wilson insists on making “Mystic” character based, starting out as a simple story of two laundry girls in an orphanage. Giselle and Genevieve are close as sisters, but their different personalities make them interesting from the start, particularly as they are both coming of age as friends and confidantes, whose social roles are still to be determined outside of the limited confines. The subtle French influence is mostly contained to the character names, as little in “Mystic” calls directly to mind of Jules Verne, for whom the whole of their planet is named, but another, much more contemporary Young Adult author seems to be the story’s chief inspiration. Saying that once the story gets by the introductory issue the bulk of the plot takes place in Hogwarts inspired school for wizardry seems somewhat disenchanting on the face of it, but the reader can be hardly at fault for making the comparison considering that the book is marketed with the tag “two teenage wizards, one destiny – can their friendship survive its greatest test?”.

The little bits of the presentation, such as lovely Amanda (“the Pro”, “Power girl”) Conner covers, with the “Magic can happen… but only for one of them”, as well as a typical Young Adult backcover blurb evidently didn’t force the retailers into changing their mind when it comes to ordering the series (seeing the released numbers online), but the effort made to help the item of purchase seem unique in the contemporary comics market is laudable on its own.

The decision to package the series in a way that echoes the much more popular novel efforts seems like a sensible decision, considering that Willow’s approach mimics J K Rowling in a lot of ways crucial to her signature series’ popularity. Namely, just like with “Harry Potter”, “Mystic” endears the reader to itself by showing a clear compassion to it’s fictional cast, who are all so earnest and full of life, with their thoughts and ambitions freely given and shared between them, that the reader cannot but feel drawn to care for them first and foremost, and only then for the mechanics of the plot.

To that extent, the idea to spotlight Giselle so heavily in the latter three issues seems like a slight to first Genevieve, and then to the many secondary characters that all seem to have a life of their own, as well as a funny reaction to each of the situations they collectively find themselves in. In fact, it’s easy to see that the whole arc might have been stretched a few issues longer, primarily so that the symmetry of the two friend’s lives might work better, as well as utilizing the rest of the cast to the full extent. And yet, most of the themes tackled by the writer seem so universal and interesting, that slighting them with tighter focus on the main plot strand still doesn’t crush all the life out of them. The relative lack of on page spotlight on Genevieve still serves a narrative purpose, as it keeps the reader in the dark considering progress in the underworld of Hyperion city’s politics, even as the reader is occupied with the much more genre suited magical adventures of her best friend.

Willow actively makes their split the heart of the series, as the bookish, more fascinated by magic Genevieve falls on the wayside with the high society and Academia’s acceptance of her street savvy friend into the ways of magic as a natural talent. Precisely what makes “Mystic” different than Rowling’s work is precisely that it was influenced by its publisher’s world famous oeuvre, that for once being classical cartoons, and not overdeveloped superhero universes. The Young Adult nature of Wilson and Lopez’s work takes a hint directly from it’s storybook inspirations, making it’s protagonist an unlikely Disney princess, and not a swashbuckling adventure knockout. What action there is in the dialogue heavy series seems much more natural and even whimsical, compared to the today’s typical male oriented teenage entertainment.

In Wilson’ hands, Giselle and Genevieve talk and behave like actual women, and even at their most confident, betray a range of emotions that have little to do with teasing their fans in what has long become a typical approach when it comes to the subject. It goes without question that both girls are beautiful, as theirs is a tale meant to inspire it’s audience by example, not direct representation of high school cliques and teenage mentality. Likewise, the high positions both sisters aspire to (or don’t, which is the chief plot contention) and attain in the fastest possible way, may seem somewhat far fetched, but are completely realistic given the fact that they are devised as characters in a story so romantic that the reader is geared to except them to be revealed as long lost children of the princess of the Realm as soon as the climax of the second Act.

That Wilson continually avoids the redundancy of the over familiarity in this genre exercise, while at the same time perpetuating time and again the oldest of clichés in the gentlest possible way, once again speaks out to the sheer positivity and enthusiasm with which this under the radar series is presented with.

In “Mystic”, the plot seems as lively as it’s protagonists, whose hopes and dreams keep the reader wondering several times in what precise direction the book will head in, seeing as the project is so wonderfully detailed and full that any of them could provide for a very engrossing read. That the writer decides on both the most dramatic and emotional once again speaks for how well thought out this, some of her earliest Marvel work has been designed as. The writer is clearly in love with her story and the possibilities it provides, inspiring her to show of all sides of her work, once again making for a compelling read overall.

This is not to say that the book is without it’s problems. As mentioned, the brevity of it robs some of the moments of their power, chiefly Giselle’s budding romance with a fellow student, but even her rivalry with the deliciously scene stealing Felice feels short changed, as the rich and spoiled student doesn’t factor in the high stakes finale, except for the mention that she is doing her part to foster the protagonist’s part in no less than saving the world’s financial and functional well being, off panel, in another part of the city.

Considering there is a very real doubt that Marvel will return to the Crossgen imprint in this iteration, given the sales and general disinterest (the books have launched at the worst possible time, when the majority of their potential audience pondering preoccupied with the possibilities of the much hyped DC relaunch) it is regretful that the reader will probably be left without ever seeing the two character’s conflict brought to fruition. In a way it is understandable given the role Genevieve and, through her, the crucial role of social unrest in the story. Simply put, while the talented Giselle is off in a the elite school for tomorrow’s Verne financial leaders, the rest of the society is falling into chaos, that has little to do with the immediate concerns of it’s leaders, no matter how well funded they may be.

Once again, as much as the high school drama setting may be directly familiar to the social life of “Mystic”’s potential readers, the world wide financial crisis is a much more serious concern that Wilson chooses to use as the real foil in her high fantasy series. To understand the implications, one must read between the lines involving the use of aether that powers the high magical society, which for most of the story aptly substitutes the electrical power in this Crossgen relaunch, but later on reveals itself as the major point of contention between the rival factions in society.

In a way, seeing revolutions in fantasy stories is nothing new, but watching what is actually nothing less than a socialist uprising in the vein of French revolution that the material calls to mind with its francophone tone, actually seems intellectually stimulating. It’s true that it’s the revolution portrayed chiefly by displaying graffiti on the few medieval-like buildings, as well as a couple of crowd scenes set around a makeshift Robespierre, but this is where again David Lopez serves as a short hand to indicate the wider context. Seeing his designs for the background characters in these scenes, all of them rich, complex and, most importantly, individual, actually brings to mind that these are actual impoverished people exploited by a system that is unfair and exploitative.

 And while an easy solution to the predicament of both the ruling elite and the subjugated many seemed in cards all along, Wilson has enough common sense to go for a more realistic ending, or at least its closest approximation when realized through the climax that involves with preserving the aether behind the world’s magic, that is being unjustly divided between the classes.

Admittedly, it’s a slippery slope, as once the Giselle reconnects with Genevieve perhaps the fairy tale nature of the story is too fragile to handle both their growing rift and the wider theme of the implications of the financial crisis, leading to the wrap up that is functional and somewhat more sobering, yet at the same time at least several pages shy of seeming natural. The subplot with Giselle’s whimsical romance with one of the students does manage to bring some levity to the proceedings of otherwise grim last issue, but it seems that the story was robbed of a better resolution involving on some level the manager of the orphanage that has figured so prominently in the debut episode, or for that matter given a larger role to another student of the arcane that helps Giselle fit in her new surroundings.

Just like the sexual tension between Genevieve and the leader of the revolution, these details seem to fall by the wayside due to the short length of the work, which still manages to make all of it’s points in style without them. There can be no higher praise for a Young Adult series than that it leaves the reader wanting for more, no matter how unlikely that may be. With reports everywhere of Marvel refocusing on it’s largest superhero brands, it’s very doubtful that the company will proceed with paying for another run of “Mystic”, which justifies the brevity of the work in the way of making the title into a cohesive whole, even if it was designed as being the first in the tentative series dealing with the previously established Crossgen originals. G Willow Wilson and David and Alvaro Lopez’s work still manages to display all of its strength and complexity, even if some of the exhibited designs and various implied paraphelia seem perfectly poised for further elaboration and continuation.

Hopefully, Marvel will see fit to collect the finish work, enabling it a longer life in its trade paperback program, and a chance to connect with a broader audience, no matter how slight. Even if this incarnation of “Mystic” proves a great blueprint for a very entertaining cartoon Disney never ends up making, it still provides a delightful run of books that will surely serve to entertain any but the most cynical of the readers that come into contact with it, expecting a piece of genre entertainment with a soul of a fairy tale.

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