By Lewis Trondheim
96 pages, color
Published by Fantagraphics Books
If you like the fantasy genre and also the comics medium, hopefully you’ve been reading Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series, which is being reprinted in English by NBM Publishing. And if you’ve read everything in Trondheim and Sfar’s sometimes-silly, sometimes-grim series and are looking for something else, you’re in luck. Fantagraphics is translating a new fantasy series entirely by Trondheim, beginning with the long-titled Ralph Azham Book One: Why Would You Lie to Someone You Love? And while it’s quite different than Dungeon, I can’t help but think that those who’ve read the former need to check out this new series, too.
Ralph Azham is set in a world where some children turn blue, which means that not only do they have some sort of special power but are are potentially the "Chosen One" of Astolia. When the book opens, Ralph is a young man who as a child was sent off to Astolia but determined to not be anything special and was returned, thanks to his gift being to tell if people are pregnant. The town pariah, he’s regularly sentenced for weeks in the pig sty, and the lowest of the low. But when the Horde is preparing to attack and Ralph is the deciding vote on how to handle the situation, his situation becomes slightly less precarious. And then, just when Ralph thinks he knows his place in the village and life in general… things get really strange.
It’s a little hard to talk about Ralph Azham‘s plot without giving away a lot of the major twists that occur in the second half of the volume, but suffice to say that this is a Trondheim story where after building up all of your assumptions he just as gleefully breaks them all down with new information. What’s nice about Trondheim’s writing, though, is that none of it comes out of nowhere. Looking back through its early pages, every plot twist is nicely telegraphed in a manner that you probably won’t recognize it the first time through. It’s into this "nothing is as they seem" world that Ralph himself fits in well. You quickly get a sense of how much he’s been kicked around by the rest of the people in the nameless village, and his biting tone and constant pushback from anyone who shows an interest in him (positive or negative) fits in well with the abuse he’s gone through. Supporting character Claire unfortunately comes across a little less believable—she’s little more than a generic woman—but with her positioned for a larger role in future volumes hopefully that will change.
If you’ve never encountered Trondheim’s art before, he draws all of his people as humanoid animals. Sometimes it’s because they really are connected to those creatures (like in Dungeon), for other times it’s just for a stylistic choice (like Little Nothings). His duck, cat, and other types of characters all come across not only well-drawn, though, but remarkably consistent. There are some little touches that you might not notice the first time through, like how after being in the pig sty Ralph remains filthy until he’s finally plunged (quite a few pages later) into a large body of water, at which point it’s all gone. The colors by Brigette Findakly are also especially vibrant, the watercolors leaping off the page at the reader. It’s a great match for Trondheim’s art, and I prefer this style to the more-typical computer coloring.
One curious decision made by Fantagraphics was the publishing format. Most of Trondheim’s graphic albums in Europe are 48-page oversized books, a format that doesn’t do well in North America. NBM has gotten around that hurdle by publishing two volumes as a single unit, as well as shrinking down the size. Fantagraphics has instead sliced Ralph Azham in half down the middle of the page; each original page has now become two pages in a landscape-oriented 96-page book. It’s an interesting way to tackle the publishing issue; while it means that pages intended to be a single unit are now two (so some of the pacing works a little better when you look at them mashed together than broken up), it lets the overall pacing of the book remain intact instead of having an entire second volume appended onto it. While a landscape-oriented book isn’t a standard format in North American publishing either, hopefully retailers and readers will be willing to give it a whirl.
Ralph Azham Book One is a nice little surprise; what initially looks cute and fun is dark and enjoyable, and Trondheim’s gradual reveals of the story’s contents are strong enough that it makes reading the next volume a must. As fun as the sprawling, multi-series Dungeon continues to be, Ralph Azham feels like a better introduction to Trondheim’s fantasy stories. It’s planned on being self-contained, and presumably has an eventual endpoint in sight to boot. I’m definitely back for Book Two; this was a great deal of fun.