Lost Colony Vol. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy

By Grady Klein
128 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

With most books, you can tell pretty quickly if it’s the sort of thing you’re going to love or hate. Be it the plot, or the style of storytelling, the author’s work just falls into place in such a way that you quickly grasp where you stand. I think that’s ultimately what’s so intriguing for me with Grady Klein’s The Lost Colony Vol. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy; by the time I was done with the book I still wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of it.

There’s an island that doesn’t exist on any map, and an even-more elusive town situated on it. When a stranger not only discovers the lost colony but comes advertising a slave auction just down the river, it sets in motion a series of events involving amnesia, magic gumballs, vindictive former slaves, and giant robots. Apparently, all just another day in the lost colony.

Klein’s story in The Lost Colony is a strange, rambling sort of tale that doesn’t seem to ever follow any set sort of path or direction. It’s instead a bunch of random strings and encounters that intersect, in a way that is simultaneously pleasing and frustrating. The main plot seems to be about little Birdy wanting to buy a slave of her own so she doesn’t have to do the chores her mother is threatening her with now that there’s a new baby boy to watch over. With the lost colony serving in part as a haven for escaped slaves, the encroachment of the slave culture and traffickers on the area is a big deal… but only sometimes. On the one hand there’s a former slave walking around with a knife and cutting down the slave auction posters (while imagining that she’s sticking it to those responsible), but then a page or two later slavery seems to be little more than a comic relief. It makes for a wildly inconsistent tone for the reader, shifting back and forth.

On some level that’s the problem I have with the entire book, a real lack of consistency. Plot lines seem to appear and leading somewhere, only to then vanish with no warning pages later. Some of these absences are understandable, since this is the first volume in a series of books and Klein is clearly saving these revelations for later on. It feels like there’s more than just that happening in The Lost Colony, though. A big deal is made about one character’s possessions and skills and out out-of-the-ordinary it is, only for the character to be seemingly written out by the end of the book. (It’s possible the character will be back, of course, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it.) There’s much attention drawn early on to the little stone states of lurking creatures around the island, ones that become day-glo pink and blue after eating magical candy, but they’re never really explained to the reader. A hallucination? Something real? All of the above? It’s one thing to leave things deliberately ambiguous, but the way this plot is handled feels almost like the resolution was accidentally left out.

And yet, despite the uneven nature of the book, there’s still things to really like about the first volume of The Lost Colony. The setup is certainly interesting, but not just the physical location and isolation of the setting. Klein clearly has mapped out in his head the relationships of all the characters; from Pepe Wong’s strange drug that he gives his servant Stewart, to Patricia’s mistrust of everyone and Snodgrass’s plans with the gigantic robot, there’s a lot going on that you want to see more of. Klein’s got a nice sense of humor too, such as Louis’s mirroring of Birdy’s desire for a slave in order to get himself released. It’s all of these little things that make The Lost Colony intriguing, and while the overall plot didn’t connect, it’s the fine details that make me want to read more and see if additional volumes can come together.

Ironically, while it’s the little details that I like about The Lost Colony‘s writing, the reverse is almost true when it comes to the art. Klein is someone who certainly isn’t afraid of using a lot of panels on a page; it’s not common for one page to have a dozen or more carefully pieced together. When working with those small panels you get to focus almost exclusively on Klein’s figure work, which is nicely iconic and does a good job of depicting the characters. In many ways, they almost look like they’re composed of pieces of felt fabric that are aligned together perfectly; it’s an attractive and interesting look for the book. What really gets me are the pages where Klein has more room to focus on not only the characters but the backgrounds as well. They’re beautifully lush and fully realized on the page; you get a real sense of the beauty and wonder of this part of the country, and every time Klein served up an image that was at least three-quarters of the page I’d end up stopping and admiring that piece of art before continuing to read the book. I never thought I’d say this before, but this is a book where I found myself wishing for more splash pages and less panels. Klein’s regular pages are certainly good and are more than a bit admirable for being able to get so much happening on a single page, but his more-detailed art is so beautiful that it makes me wish for more of it.

In the end, there’s things to both like and dislike about The Lost Colony Vol. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy. I don’t want to write it off because of its faults, because they exist side-by-side with some really nice pieces of storytelling. It’s ultimately an uneven debut; I can’t say that one should race out and buy the first volume sight unseen, but it’s definitely worth a look. With the second volume (The Red Menace) due in Spring 2007, Klein has the potential to pull everything together and let his strengths run the show; one certainly hopes that’s the case. Until then, the book is as hard to pin down as the titular colony itself. It’s not really on the map, and you get the impression that it’s happy that way. Hopefully future exploration will pin it down once and for all.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com

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