By Svetlana Chmakova
192 pages, black and white
Published by Yen Press
A little over a year ago, I read the fifth Flight anthology and was enthralled by Svetlana Chmakova’s short story, "On the Importance of Space Travel." I’d promised myself since then that I’d give some of her other comics a try, and recently picked up and read the first two volumes of Nightschool. And while the idea of a school for the supernatural is something we’ve all seen before, it’s Chmakova’s style of how she tells the story that makes this series stand out and become memorable.
One of the things that almost instantly grabbed me about Chmakova’s Nightschool is that it doesn’t hold back any punches. Bad things happen to characters, there’s genuine dangerous situations, and no one is safe. A character that looks to be one of the protagonists is removed early on, and things rapidly spiral out of control from that point on. For a book centered around a night school for weirns (a kind of spellcaster), shapeshifters, vampires, and demons, the stakes and danger should automatically be higher and that’s exactly what we get. And while the main character Alex is the most interesting and fleshed out member of the cast as she searches for her missing sister, I was impressed by how many of the secondary characters come across well in Nightschool. There’s more to the book than just Alex trying to find Sarah, and that’s what solidified Nightschool in my head as more than just another "supernatural school" story.
Mind you, Alex Treveney is a great protagonist. Suddenly and without warning on her own, her attempts to find Sarah are interesting in no small part because of her personality. There’s just the right mixture of confidence, self-doubt, and cleverness that makes her fun to read about. One thing that I like about her is that she doesn’t get stuck on the same track for too long. If one plan doesn’t work, she stops and assesses the situation before making a new plan of attack. There’s one point in the second volume where after all of her other plans to gain access somewhere have failed, she admits that it isn’t working and takes the dull and painstakingly slow (but guaranteed effective) route. It’s a level of patience and logic that you don’t often see in a main character.
Chmakova’s art is, in a word, adorable. It’s one of the few manga-influenced styles out there that seems to understand its source material but manages to both find its own path and also remain effective. Alex has an amazingly expressive face, able to shift from worried to determined to pleased in the blink of an eye. Watching her interact with her astral (a magical helper/extension of Alex) provides Chmakova an opportunity to show that she’s good at drawing physical comedy, as well as able to draw such a fluid, flowing form in a normally static medium. Chmakova can draw the creepy, too; the scenes with the supernatural killers, for instance, have a surprising amount of darkness infused into them. The trees towering up looking like shadows instead of actual objects is an eerie way to frame those scenes, and instantly provides the right mood for that part of the book.
Chmakova has created not just a story in Nightschool but an entire world that feels well-thought out and multi-faceted. It’s a series that drops the reader right into the middle, not providing huge amounts of exposition, instead just letting the world speak for itself. It works, too; she’s planted more than enough material throughout the book that it’s easy to figure out what’s going on, and to hit the ground running. I’m hoping the subtitle of The Weirn Books means that we’ll be getting additional stories set in Nightschool‘s world once this is done. Even just focusing on some of the supporting cast characters of the school has a lot of potential; Chmakova’s made a true believer out of me. With a third volume of Nightschool due this spring, I’m already counting the days until its release.