Not so very long ago, if you were a kid and you wanted to read comics, you had a couple of choices: you could either read superhero comics, or you could read Archie comics. Now, the young adult comics scene is positively thriving. Teens can find realistic comics, fantasy comics, sci-fi comics, adventure comics, and romance comics in just about any comic book store.
In the last month, Image Comics has released a pair of new YA books that demonstrate the breadth and depth of the field. These direct-to-paperback books are a bit of a departure for the publisher — unlike most of Image’s output, they weren’t originally published in monthly serialized format — but hopefully they represent a new initiative for Image, because they’re excellent examples of the form.
Kid Savage, written by comics veteran Joe Kelly and illustrated by the one-named and all-capped ILYA, is the most plainly high-concept of the two. It’s basically the family from Lost in Space if they adopted a pint-size Tarzan on their travels, with a reality-show twist. This volume is essentially an origin story, crashing the family on a primitive planet and pitting them against (and eventually alongside) the titular wild human.
Kid Savage is an appealing package. ILYA’s art is dynamic and expressive, with lots of bold lines and nuanced facial expressions from all the characters. (A couple of the action sequences, however, are very difficult to follow.) And Kelly does a fun tweak on the father-knows-best convention of traditional sci-fi by making the father of the spacefaring clan a bit of a hand-wringing boob who’s plagued by self-doubt and riddled with guilt. The son and daughter are forced to be the adults because the mom’s out of the picture, but that dynamic is immediately set into doubt when they run across a character who is basically nothing but raging id. It’s a good start to what is hopefully a series of sci-fi survival adventures.
The other book from Image, Afar, defies easy description. It’s about a brother and sister in a post-apocalyptic society, but it’s not another example of the dreary survivalist yarns that have taken YA hostage over the last decade. The sister, Boetema, discovers that she has a fascinating power: when she sleeps, her consciousness comes to life in the body of an alien, somewhere else in the universe. Boetema inhabits the consciousnesses of beings like her (a humanoid race in an advanced civilization) and not like her (a squidlike creature wrapped in a sack at the bottom of a fishing boat) and she seems to have no ability to control what world she finds herself on next.
Afar is a cosmic space fantasy that also incorporates a complex political dynamic as the siblings try to survive in a punishing desert culture. With her head in the stars, Boetema finds it more and more stressful to take care of her brother while also intermingling her consciousness with alien cultures halfway across the universe. It’s a perfect read for those kids who are perennially daydreaming, because it’s a story about what you can do when you allow your mind to wander.
Young readers will find the story, by Leila Del Duca, to be dense and rewarding. But the art by Kit Seaton is what will draw people in. Seaton is adept at conveying the ideas behind entire alien civilizations in just a handful of panels, and her skillful use of color and perspective keep Boetema’s “dream”-life clearly delineated from her “real”-life. There’s never any doubt where we are in the story at any point, which is a testament to Seaton’s ability to keep a reader grounded in a story that briefly features a planet of wizard-dogs.
This is the kind of book I wish I’d found in a school library when I was 15. Afar doesn’t just give readers a new, alien world; it introduces readers to ten of them, and inspires them to wonder about all the possibilities out there in the great big universe.