Thursday Comics Hangover: The color of adventure

The comics industry is twisting itself up into a knot over the fact that kids aren't reading superhero comics. Even though young people are attending superhero movies in sick-making numbers, they're not buying into the comics that serve as the basis for those movies.

But I find it hard to get too exercised over this "crisis." Kids are reading comics, probably in greater numbers than they have in decades. They're just reading about different kinds of heroes. These heroes look more like the kids of today — diverse, confident, proudly imperfect — and they don't carry any of the odd baggage that has accrued around superhero stories for the last six decades.

I recently read the first two books in the 5 Worlds series, The Sand Warrior and The Cobalt Prince, and they're the kind of comics I wish I had when I was younger. The hero of the series, Oona, is curious but big-hearted. She's not an angry nerd like Peter Parker, or a bitter rage-baby like Bruce Banner. She's curious and clumsy and she wants to help people.

Early in The Sand Warrior, Oona finds herself on a predestined mission to reignite ancient beacons spread across five war-torn planets. She teams up with a space athlete and a strange little outcast to save the galaxy.

Creator-wise, it's hard to tell exactly who did what in the 5 Worlds series. It's written by brothers Alexis and Mark Siegel, but three illustrators are credited for the art: Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Whoever actually drew the thing deserves a ton of praise: the art is cute without being cloying, and imaginative while still being thoroughly relatable.

But the real genius here is the coloring: using a palette of pastels and gentle earth tones, these books are dreamy and warm and unlike all the other fantasy books on the shelves. A giant sand creature near the end of the first book is framed against a dusky sunrise and a gloomy moon, adding to the reader's sense of wonder. Whoever is responsible for coloring this book is breaking new ground in adventure comics; the superhero publishers should be ripping them off as shamelessly as possible.

Occasionally, the 5 Worlds books grind to a halt to provide exposition that will move the story forward for the next 30 or 40 pages. These info dumps are a bit too thick for their own good. Ooona says to someone early in the first book, "But...but I thought the Sand Castle and the Flying Fortress hated each other!" He replies,

Plumb visited with Domani diplomats but he was secretly teaching me. I came to understand there is something rotten in the heart of the Fortress these days! Toki stands against lighting the beacons! I escaped to continue my training because I believe lighting them is the right thing to do.

That's a lot of telling. Showing this character's backstory probably would have added a lot of pages to the book — at about 250 pages each, these are not exactly slim — but they would have made the story feel a little more organic.

But kids love exposition as long as it leads somewhere good. Oona's quest is perfect for young readers: she travels from planet to planet, lighting the way for a kinder, more inclusive future. You can keep your superheroes; she's just the hero that we need right now.