Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch: a Review

Hereville is terrific. Stylish, entertaining, extremely well-done with an engrossing story and fabulous page-layout: plus, above all, Hereville is charming.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the first published graphic novel by Barry Deutsch, a political cartoonist and blogger that I've followed for a number of years. In fact, I was a reader of Deutsch's Alas, a blog (where he posts as "Ampersand" or, informally, "Amp"), before I realized that he was a cartoonist or interested in comics -- only to discover that he was not only a comics reader but a comics creator, which was a nice surprise. Eventually I realized that the fabulous little drawings on the blog were his; and even eventuallier I realized he drew other things, too. Deutsch even cross-posted one of my blog posts at Alas, which was nice of him (since his is a real blog with actual, y'know, traffic). All of which is to say that I was predisposed to be biased in Deutsch's favor, knowing him to be a thoughtful and interesting blogger and (in an internet-acquaintance fashion) a nice guy. So you should sprinkle this review with the salt of possible bias, to taste.

But for what it's worth, in my view, Hereville is a delight.

Hereville is, I think, a book that's well served by it's three-tiered title, so I'm going to follow that to introduce it.

Hereville is set, apparently, in the contemporary U.S., but aside from a few oddities such as electric lightbulbs, you'd never notice it: I think even a careful reader could go through the entire work imagining it in a small village in some unspecified Eastern European past. (There are lightbulbs, but no cars, no computers, no phones; the language spoken is called Yiddish (although the text itself is in English with only occasional Yiddish or Hebrew phrases.)) It's set in a remote village, one that is the entire world for its characters: no mention or thought is given to the outside world, save for the fact that one of Mirka's half-siblings seems to have been raised there (and, thus, unlike her siblings, knows what a pig looks like).* Everyone in the town is Orthodox Jewish (Hasidic, I think); at one point two of Mirka's sisters are shocked at the notion that the witch they've encountered might not be Jewish. So the setting of the town, it's feel, is very well captured by it's title: "Hereville". This is a village which is, to its residents, simply "here".

If the title captures the essence of the location (although no more than that: it is wonderfully evoked, with a real life breathed into the somewhat out-of-time setting), then the sub-title equally pithily captures the book's plot: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the tale of just that, how a heroine came by the sword that she will (presumably) use in future adventures. (I should say, however, that the story is a complete story -- sure, there are a few mysteries are left unanswered, and there are clearly room for many more tales staring Mirka, but you do get a complete story with an honest-to-Hashem ending and narrative closure.) Save for the name (and gender) of the heroine, it would have a familiar ring: lots of famous heroes got their swords in various oft-told ways, and this is how this particular hero got hers.

And that should give you some idea of the story, too: it's a fairy tale -- not a fantasy set in a complete secondary world, nor an invasion fantasy or anything like that, but simply a tale which takes place with trolls and witches and dragons lingering (initially) out of sight, off the margins and outside the town borders. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that it was based upon a Jewish folktale, although to my knowledge it isn't. But it has the rhythm of a retold fairy story, or perhaps two or three stitched together.

Finally, Hereville's sub-subtitle** -- Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl -- captures the protagonist as compactly as the title captures the setting and the subtitle the story. Mirka is an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl, who wants to fight dragons -- although she hasn't yet met one; but in the meantime she has a troll (and other creatures) to contend with. The "yet another" might suggest a sense in the book that Mirka is one of a crowd (e.g. in a Buffy sense that, of course young girls fight vampires/trolls), but that's not how it's played in the work: "yet another" is a sly wink at the audience: why not write about a Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl? -- although no one's done it before.

Pivoting off the protagonists' age, I should mention that Hereville is being marketed as a kid's book -- ages 9-12, I believe -- and that it certainly has the feel of a book aimed at that age group. And I would unhesitatingly recommend it for (and indeed buy it as a gift for) any kid in that age range -- or, indeed, old enough to follow the story: there's nothing objectionable here for younger kids, just possibly a bit complicated in spots. As for older readers, my only hesitation is precisely that it does feel like, well, a book for pre-teens: a witty, entrancing and extremely well done, but nevertheless not a graphic novel intended for a sophisticated, adult audience. If you think that reading a kids' book is going to disappoint... well, avoid Hereville.*** But for anyone who, as an adult, read Jeffy Smith's Bone or Harry Potter, Hereville is very highly recommended. (Oh, and if anyone happens on this post who's read and enjoyed Hereville but not Bone, go read Bone. Really. It's like what Hereville may be once Deutsch does another nine volumes or so.) Deutsch himself has said in an interview that he thinks of Hereville as "middle reader that anyone can enjoy"; I'd second that, save for adults who don't like to read middle reader books (you know who you are).

So that's what Hereville is; how it is is superb. It's elegantly written and plotted, and fabulously drawn. You'd never guess from reading Hereville that it's Deutsch's first book; it reads as if it could be the work of a far more mature artist (writing and drawing, of course, for kids). And, unsurprisingly, there's a reason for that. Hereville began life as a web comic, and it was published in a complete, earlier form on the web. Then Deutsch revised every page for the book version, and got another artist to do the coloring.

You can still read the web comic version at the link -- but I actually recommend against it. It's similar enough that you might not want to read the better version -- and the latter version really is distinctly better. Good as the web comic is at times -- his layouts are already great -- Deustch just improved a lot, as a writer and as a comics artist, between his first two drafts.

If you want a taste of what the revision entailed, take a look at this blog post where Deutsch lays out two versions of the same page, earlier and later. It's the same story, and if you look quickly it might not seem that much different. But it's the difference between satisfactory prose and elegant writing, between a fine likeness and a great one, a rough version and a full one: the details are just much better, and it makes a cumulative difference in reading any narrative when this is the case -- even if only a subliminal one. So even if you don't notice it, you'll like Hereville a lot more if you read the book version. Use the web comics version to give yourself a taste, if you must, but then go buy the book.

(If you're interested in Deutsch's process, he has another great blog post where he walks the reader through the various choices that went into the composition of one of his panels.)

I would say that Deutsch's writing is elegantly simple, while his art his elegant, easy to read, and formally complex. Let's take the writing first. The story, as I've said, reads like a fairytale -- straightforward, compelling, with a marvelous social world in the background, but essentially a pretty simple narrative. The characterization -- primarily of Mirka and some of her siblings, although also of her stepmother, and of the pig -- is quite good, capturing their differences while making each interesting and rounded. The plot is quite well constructed, and is quite gripping. (And that very gripping nature is used, narratively, to convey the power of the Jewish Shabbat (sabbath): it interrupts the story, a moment of narrative stillness that makes the reader feel and not just see the way that the day works itself into the rhythm of the observant Jewish week. It's one of the best artistic effects in the comic. (And then, right after Havdalah -- Sabbat's end -- the story picks up and continues full pace.))

As far as Deutsch's comicscraft goes, it's also superb. His faces are very simple, Hergé-esque things, but (as simple faces in comics do (for reasons that Scott McCloud analyzes in Understanding Comics)) they work very well: usually the eyes are dots, save in close-ups when they become a bit fuller. Deutsch is expressive with figure, and very focused on making sure both the "camera" angle and the panel transitions are both varied and help push along the narrative.

But what stands out in the illustrations are the page layouts and the lettering. Deutsch uses all sorts of innovative and interesting layouts, which don't complicate the story at all -- they're not hard to read, the way good but challenging comics artists can be (e.g. J. H. Williams III, who for all I love his work sometimes makes you struggle to figure out the reading order). They're just rich and varied and delightful.

Here's an example of how one works. On the fourth page of the comic Fruma, the heroine's stepmother, is arguing with Mirka. Then, almost at the end of the work, on p. 131, Mirka's arguing with someone else -- and the precise same layout is used. This shows how she is modeling her argument after that of her stepmother without being heavy-handed about it: it's just a nice echo brought up by the page layouts. They're really quite close: the expressions and stances that the three overlapping figures in the top right-hand corner of the page are the same in both cases. It's a marvelous, subtle touch. (A very similar, but not quite identical, layout is used in a second discussion between Fruma and Mirka -- this time not an argument, but an informative lecture -- inbetween the two, on p. 69.)

Deutsch uses a rich variety of layouts, viewpoint angles, types of panel transitions, etc, to keep the art lively. It's obviously the work of a dedicated, careful comics reader as well as artist.

Deutsch's use of lettering and ballooning is also very rich. He uses them very expressively, giving the balloons cartoony shape and form that help convey meaning: in one place, a word balloon turns into a weight pressing on another character's head; in a second place, a word balloon physically pushes another character over. When Mirka tumbles down a cliff, her exclamation balloons turn and twist every which way, and the balloon's tails turn into a tangle. And so forth. It's not ostentatious, but its a rich narrative tool, one that works well with his generally cartoony art style.

In both his page layouts and lettering, the largest influence on Deutsch's work appears to be Dave Sim's Cerebus. I checked, and he admits as much in his post on the completion of Cerebus, but honestly I think I would have seen it anyway: the lettering and page-layout in Hereville is simply and unmistakably very Simmesque. But since Sim is a quite extraordinary cartoonist, one of the best to work in the medium (if also possibly the craziest and most misogynistic), this is by no means a bad thing: indeed, a fair amount of Hereville's stylishness and formal inventiveness can be traced to a thoughtful absorption of Sim's lessons. (Plus, y'know, it's shorter, and feminist rather than misogynistic.) Deutsch learned from Sim, but the work is his own, and is very well done.

Another influence, I think, is manga: he uses a lot of manga-esque motion lines and the like to convey action. -- And actually, I'm guessing here -- or perhaps only showing my own limited cultural frame -- but I suspect that another influence was Scott McCloud: Deutsch's use of motion lines, of what McCloud would call aspect-to-aspect transitions, and the like, strike me as ones that betray the influence not only of the sort of comics McCloud talks about but McCloud's own specific analysis as well. (And this is not at all a bad thing, in my view.)

When discussing the art, I should make mention of the coloring. The coloring in the web comic was Deutsch's own; in this book he brought in an outside colorist, Jake Richmond, to re-color the art. It's a huge improvement. Richmond uses a subtle palette for most of the book -- not a two-color palette -- there are at least three or four colors he uses in addition to black and white -- but it's from a fairly narrow temperature range, with a rich, warm orangey feel, that gives the book the feel of a two-color work. Then, towards the end of the book, in the final climactic scene -- which, unlike most of the work, takes place at night -- he switches to a different palette with a similar range but this time in a cool, blueish zone. It's very effective. And the three-page transition at the end of the scene -- sunrise, plus one other page which I shan't spoil -- mix the two palettes in a very marvelous way, before ending the comic with a few pages in the main color palette used in the book. It's terrific, and adds a lot to the work.

I'd like to show some sample pages, just to give a sense of what I'm talking about, but Deutsch has only posted a few so far, and frankly, they're not my favorites. Still, here are a few pages from Hereville just to give you a sense of his artistic style:

I do have a few quibbles with the work, although only minor ones. Mirka's stepsister Rochel has what seems to me a very boyish face: I kept thinking it was one of Mirka's brothers in close-up shots (she dresses as a girl, and not at all as a young Orthodox boy, so it's clearly not -- but it's just a little bit off). And from a production viewpoint, the very end of the book is badly put together: the final page, while definitely an ending, is abrupt enough that one thinks there could easily be another page or two of denouement: but without any words such as "The End", or a blank page to signal a closing, or even the text acknowledgements page to signal an end to the strictly comics portion of the work, the text slides straight into two pages of DVD-extras. It's just a bit awkward -- like stumbling over an uneven pavement tile -- and could be easily fixed by doing any of the things I mentioned above.

But yes, these are quibbles. My main complaint, and it's a serious one, is that volume two is not out yet. I mean yes, I know that volume one's official publication date isn't until November and everything, but the story reads quickly, is engrossing -- and feels like the beginning to a long series (a la Bone or any number of manga). I was ready to set the volume aside and go on to Hereville: How Mirka Found the Time. Draw faster, Amp!

Highly recommended for any and all kids, for fans of virtuoso use of the comics medium, for fans of fairytales, and for any adults with enough of a taste for kids' books to read and enjoy a great one.

Update: This review was subsequently cross-posted at Berfrois.

* I don't really have any idea where Deutsch is going with his series, but I can imagine some very good narrative potential in letting the series age with Mirka (à la Harry Potter), showing her eventually leaving Hereville and having to confront different cultures, different people and different beliefs.

** Generally speaking, I think sub-subtitles are awkward (excepting things like "a novel" and so forth), but they are currently endemic to graphic novel publishing, and for a good reason: graphic novels are frequently published in series, so that the "title" of a volume is often the series title, and the "sub-title" is the volume title: thus if an author wants an actual sub-title, they need to enter into the swampy domain of the sub-subtitle. Thus, Hereville will be (I presume) the title of Deutsch's ongoing series; How Mirka Got Her Sword is the title of the first volume of that series; and its subtitle is Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl. Excpet that it's a sub-subtitle, so we can have future Hereville books: and it'll be worth it, once we do.

*** Also: consider get your moods adjusted, lowering the seriousness and stuck-up-itedness somewhat and dialing up the fun-loving, delight-in-childish-tales settings.

**** A propos of nothing (hence, the lack of an upper reference for this footnote) here's a cute drawing Deutsch did of Kitty Pryde (of X-Men fame) putting an orange on a seder plate, which, if you know what the latter is supposed to mean, is really cute. (According to the linked article, the meaning that's come to be ascribed to it isn't what it originally meant... but that's another story.)


Michael A. Burstein said...

I actually have an article about Hereville and Barry Deutsch coming out in the Boston Phoenix next week, and I'll be sure to link to it from my blog when the article gets posted online.

Given the word limits for the newspaper (I had about 600 words for the article), I couldn't go into all the detail you do here. But I did in fact also use the word "charming" to describe the book.

Barry Deutsch said...

Thanks for the review! I really enjoyed reading it, obviously. I'm posting a link to it on Hereville and Alas.

I'm planning to post the first 14 pages of Hereville as a preview -- hopefully there'll be some pages there you like better as samples. :-)

I would point out that there is a phone in Hereville! It's in the middle panel of page 82.

The entire Dave Sim thing depresses me. I'd really like to be able to show him "Hereville," despite our rather extreme political disagreements, but he's made it clear that he doesn't want to hear from anyone who thinks he's a misogynist.

Stephen said...

I should point out that I don't think those are *bad* pages by any means; they just aren't virtuoso in the way that many of your pages are -- which is to say, I don't think that reading them in isolation would knock anyone out. A 14 pp preview is a great idea; it will portray the book quite well, I think. (My favorite page in the opening 14 is the one where they're knocking hats around -- brilliantly done.)

Phone: why, so there is. Ooops. But it's not, y'know, actually *used* or anything.

Finally, as for Dave Sim... why not send him the book with a brief note saying you greatly admire his cartooning, and just not bring up the whole misogynist thing either way? See if he looks at it only out of curiosity?

Barry Deutsch said...

Probably my favorite page in the whole thing is page 116. But I don't want to post that one, because I don't want people who haven't read the webcomic to be spoiled for it. :-)

The main reason I hesitate to contact Sim, is that Sim has made it clear that he considers it somehow dishonest for people to be polite and nice to him to his face even while thinking he's a misogynist. So by his standards, if I sent him a copy but didn't mention the misogyny thing, I'm being hypocritical and deceptive.

Of course, I'm under no obligation to take on his standards, so maybe...

Barry Deutsch said...

Regarding Dave Sim, read this letter from Sim, if you haven't already:

Stephen said...

Barry, I was thinking that perhaps Sim felt he'd made his point, and that if you sent the book to him without reference to misogyny either way, he might look at it on its merits. (Although, honestly, who knows what he'd think of a book with a girl as a heroine!) But if he's still requiring oath-signing before correspondence, then I can see why it's hopeless.