Friday, March 9, 2018

A Particularly Unpleasant Wizard: Oliver Gerlach reviews MIAS AND ELLE VOLUME 1 by Jenny Clements

In the last couple of years, I have spent a lot of time browsing the artists’ alleys of the UK’s comic conventions, and by last year’s Thought Bubble I was growing somewhat disillusioned with the scene. I was feeling like almost everything out there was assembled by all-white, all-male creative teams who wanted to tell stories about slightly cooler versions of themselves in slightly more exciting settings. Sometimes, when a field is looking somewhat tedious, a book comes along that revitalizes it for you. Jenny ClementsMias and Elle volume 1: Taken (printed by Dormaeus Publishing) did that very effectively for me. 
Originating as a webcomic before coming to print, Mias and Elle looks at first glance like the sort of teen-targeted, haphazardly serialized story that has come to be emblematic of the webcomics of the last decade or so. There is, however, a lot more depth on display here than you might initially think. On the surface, Mias and Elle follows a fairly familiar and standard story found in a great deal of young adult fantasy: Girl meets boy, boy turns out to be wizard, boy kidnaps girl, everyone has a terrible time. What makes this book interesting is how that terrible time is presented. 

What Mias and Elle achieves is the introduction of a particularly unpleasant wizard to a relatively child-friendly story, without ever forcing the tone of the story into something excessively dark. Let’s talk about really sketchy wizards for a bit. Wizards are inherently suspect on some level. Even the “good” ones such as Gandalf, Dumbledore, or Merlin aren’t quite trustworthy; they exist on higher planes of power, knowledge, and society than most characters, and they tend towards the manipulative and unempathetic. They’re also primarily found in children's’ fiction. But what about the explicitly morally dubious ones? The self-interested, dangerous bastards like John Constantine who treat regular humans as cannon fodder? What really separates those from the “good” wizards? 

Well, seemingly, not all that much at all, apart from the restrictions of genre classification. “Good” wizards are found in children’s literature, while “bad” wizards are in adult fiction. As characters, however, they’re pretty much the same; the only real difference is that adult fiction allows more explicit portrayals of the moral bankruptcy of magicians. 

In Jenny Clements’ take on the trope, it’s clear from his very first appearance that Mias is an arrogant and unfriendly wizard; he storms around a room, face thunderous, eyebrows arched, overly dramatic eyeshadow on point from the moment he wakes up. He is also charismatic, expressive, and deeply charming. All of this looks, on the surface, like an attractive bad-boy wizard ready for a quick redemption arc and/or a romantic plot. The subtle acting visible in Clements’ art, however, indicates something quite different. Mias emotes primarily through his eyes; he rarely looks anyone directly in the eye and prefers to glower out from under his magnificent eyebrows, looking anywhere but at the person to whom he speaks. His charm is a front; underneath, he just looks shifty and unpleasant. Even Clements’ lettering helps to sell his unpleasantness, doing so in a manner that hints at the underlying problems with all wizards. Whenever Mias casts a spell, he does so in thin, spidery white text on a black, scribble-edged balloon. It’s a subtle way to clearly convey a sense of danger and malevolence; this doesn’t just look magical, but actively evil. This is very reminiscent of Hellblazer; the charming magician, followed by an unshakeable feeling that everyone he interacts with will end up dead, and he won’t care in the slightest. 
Inserting the amoral, “adult” wizardry of the Constantine-style magician into a more young adult story is something which should destabilize the surrounding narrative and friendly tone. Yet Clements manages this very effectively by keeping Mias’ evils restrained to the subtle elements discussed above. The surface which covers the sinister elements of the story remains consistently bright and energetic; all of this subtle malevolence lies under an attractive, almost animated-looking art style. Characters emote on a large scale, faces deforming and contorting like cartoon characters, bodies moving in an exaggerated manner. Every movement and facial expression exudes charm and energy, drawing the reader in and reassuring them, all while gently hinting that all is not right. It is all deftly handled, keeping the book fun, child-friendly and appealing, but never quite losing that sense of impending wizard-induced disaster. 

Perhaps that sense of amorality and disaster is always present in stories about wizards. Hobbits who travel with Gandalf invariably return home changed, unable to quite return to normal life. The world of Harry Potter is rife with danger, constantly ready to spill out into regular society as soon as one clueless wizard makes a mistake. Inevitably, wizards either fail to understand the concerns of ordinary people or cynically choose to manipulate them for their own ends. This underlying danger is always there, but is easier to keep firmly buried out of sight in prose, where facial expressions and lettering cannot betray a wizard’s cruelty; imagine a comics Gandalf lettered with a sinister font, for example. Nothing would change about the character, but his inhumanity would rise closer to the surface. 
In Clements’ hands, the clash of worlds between Mias’ dangerous fantasy origins and Elle’s sleepy modern English town only serves to highlight the inherent danger of wizards; transposing a character who can literally rewrite the rules of reality into a setting defined by its staid, pastoral lack of change can only wreak havoc on the town. Of course, it’s possible to portray the introduction of a magical force of change to an inflexible environment as a force for good, but that does not seem the case here at all, even when the action moves from England to the fantasy world. Beneath his charms and delightful character design, Mias can only lead to disaster for those around him. This is a recurring feature of the book: Elle has been abducted against her will, and nothing Mias does is ever likely to have any positive outcome for her. Despite never losing sight of the wide age range of the target audience, Clements relentlessly portrays Mias as a disastrous force of change, storming through the world and leaving chaos in his wake with no thought for the consequences or for anybody other than himself. 
Overall, this first volume of Mias and Elle proves Jenny Clements to be an artistic force to be reckoned with. The charming, friendly style of her art prevents the underlying malevolence of Mias from ever rising to the surface of the story; it is always an adventure story first and foremost, with the sense of impending disaster maintained as a background presence. This is a very effective combination of two disparate approaches to morally dubious wizards, inserting a complex and unpleasant character into a more reassuring plot without ever destabilising the narrative. This forms a fascinating addition to the substantial body of work dealing with wizards; the vast majority of stories either focus on the horror of magic or conceal it to the point of near-extinction. It’s also worth noting that Clements is very enthusiastic about drawing pictures of Mias as the world’s most excessively eyeshadowed cat if you happen to buy a copy from her in person. Not that cat-Mias is particularly relevant to the story, but it’s a delightful and hilarious addition to the book. 

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Oliver Gerlach is a feral classicist living wild somewhere in darkest Scotland. He is also a musician, writer, and cosplayer (and occasionally several of the above at the same time). He can be found on twitter @olliegerlach, and should probably build himself a proper website at some point

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