By Spencer Irwin and Michael DeLaney
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: The older I get, the more I realize how vital communication is to just about every single facet of life. So many problems and conflicts, be they in business or our personal lives, are caused by simple miscommunications, and the inability to communicate with someone makes it almost impossible to do anything with them or have any sort of meaningful relationship. Communication is a central theme of Isola, the new Image series from former Gotham Academy collaborators Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl, and Msassyk. Not only does Isola 1 explore the difficulties that arise when two parties are unable to communicate, but the methods the creative team use to communicate information with the readers are second-to-none. This is one smartly-told comic book.
Let’s look at the first page for an example.
Unlike many stories set in a fantasy world, Isola doesn’t open with an information dump (nor does one appear at any point in the issue). Instead, we see a young woman, a soldier named Rook, sitting in the rain while a tiger sleeps in a tent. The tiger’s backside sticks out, and Rook covers it with a blanket. Immediately readers are struck by the strangeness of this; shouldn’t the soldier be in the tent, and the tiger outside? We know there must be something important about the tiger, but we don’t know what it is, and it’s quite a while yet before Fletcher and Kerschl (casually, in a line of dialogue) reveal that the tiger is actually Rook’s Queen, Olwyn, somehow magically transformed.
Instead, Fletcher and Kerschl devote the rest of this opening sequence to an anxiety dream/magical encounter where Rook thinks that Olwyn has been murdered and nearly loses her mind. Before we have any idea of who either of these characters are or how they got to where they are, the creative team makes sure we know that drives them, the burden of responsibility Rook feels for her companion. The creative team is prioritizing motivation and character over lore, and I find that heartening.
Eventually we learn that Rook’s ultimate goal is to get Olwyn to “Isola,” which she thinks will return Olwyn to her human form. We know very little about Isola. A later line of dialogue, when Rook hopes that a fallen beast’s spirit finds its way to Isola, implies that it’s a place or plane of existence rather than a person, but other than that, Isola itself is left a mystery. Again, it’s a choice I admire. A big information dump about Isola would be unnecessary at this point in the story; all readers need to know for now is that reaching Isola is Rook’s goal. We can speculate about the rest, and speculation does wonders to draw readers into a story.
The biggest roadblock in Rook and Olwyn’s path, even greater than hunters or wild beasts, is communication. While Olwyn seems able to understand Rook just fine, she can’t speak back to Rook since, of course, she’s a tiger. This leaves Rook frustrated, not only because Olwyn can’t let her know what she needs, but because she can’t get any sort of praise or feedback from her queen. Rook is left to castigate herself every time she feels like she’s spoken out of turn.
Readers are no more clued into Olwyn’s thoughts than Rook is; all we have to go on are her facial expressions and body language, masterfully rendered by Kerschl. Kerschl never anthropomorphizes Olwyn, yet it’s easy to understand what the tiger’s feeling, such as her peaceful acceptance transforming into stern disapproval in the above sequence. Rook likewise takes these seemingly obvious emotions at face value, yet should she? Despite moments where we see Olwyn acting very human — such as pushing Rook out of the way of danger — we also see, at one point, Olwyn giving into her animal instinct to eat raw meat off of a corpse. Notably, we never actually see Olwyn transformed into a tiger; she’s already one before the issue begins, and we just have Rook’s word (and the confirmation of the somewhat loony Mora, Pring) that she was once human. I’m inclined to believe Rook, for the record, but the creative team’s choice to withhold information here leaves open some intriguing possibilities. What they aren’t communicating is just as important as what they are.
When Rook later shoots a hunter before even stopping to see who he is, sparking a fight she might’ve otherwise avoided, it’s another instance of a lack of communicating hurting her, especially since her hair-trigger was worsened by her frustrations with Olwyn. It’s no wonder Pring’s offer to allow her to speak to Olwyn is so appealing — communication is as much her goal as reaching Isola, but for the moment, both are sadly out of reach.
Msassyk’s colors are absolutely gorgeous — making each panel look more like a frame of especially lush animation rather than a comic — but they also have an important role in communicating with the readers. Take this page from early in the issue.
Rook doesn’t know that what she’s about to see isn’t real, but Msassyk clues us in — while “reality” is bathed in the dark blues of the storm, the purple surrounding the fox immediately sets it apart as something foreign to the world the story had established thus far. Every member of this creative team is making such smart choices, treating readers with respect and intelligence and knowing exactly just what information to give and what to withhold. I like the story Isola 1 tells, but from a craft perspective alone, this is a thrilling issue.
Michael, what’s your take on this one? And hey, I’m right to assume the soldier’s name is Rook, right? It only gets mentioned once, as she talks to herself, and it might be the only aspect of this issue that I wish the creative team had made a little clearer.
Michael: I would assume that the soldier’s name is Rook as well, if for no other reason that letter Aditya Bidikar uses a capital “R” – indicating a proper noun rather than a nickname. Bidikar also uses some standout lettering for sound effects, often announcing someone or something arriving from off-panel. The first example is the ominous hissing that Rook hears off-panel, revealed to be that uber-ominous fox. At times it’s not clear if Bidikar is actually trying to spell out a sound effect or merely leaving that up to the reader’s imagination. Either way it’s effective. When Rook is sharpening her blade we see tally marks scraping up against one another, evoking that coarse noise of metal on stone.
Spencer, I’m right there with you on the overall presentation of Isola 1. I am ever-wary of the over-explanation/exposition of new fantasy worlds. Isola 1 respects its readers’ intelligence enough to assume that they can follow along without an info-dump and not lose their minds. Mark Twain said “there is no such thing as a new idea,” right? If we really tried, I’m sure that we could find story elements from a few different sources in Isola. One that immediately comes to mind is Pixar’s Brave, a similar tale where a queen is transformed into an animal – this time as a bear. I believe that we are a competent audience and stories that have come before are a cypher for understanding the ones that follow. I’d like to think that Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl agree.
This is just a shot in the dark, but it’s possible that Rook is so-named because of her rookie status. She’s presented to us as a character who is untested and a little unsure of herself. She has a deep reverence and respect for Queen Olwyn, but that could also be interpreted as her self-consciousness. Her initial fever dream of failing the queen and allowing her to be killed is the first clear indication that she isn’t completely confident in herself. From what we’ve seen thus far Rook leaps before she looks, often to the detriment of herself and the queen.
The hasty action of killing the hunter Walfie brought attention to Rook and Queen Olwyn’s situation which otherwise might’ve gone unnoticed. The issue ends with the remaining hunter witnessing Rook bowing and speaking to a tiger, something that will undoubtedly come back to bite them in ass later on.
I shouldn’t be surprised that Queen Olwyn becomes more animalistic the longer she stays a tiger. A prime example of this is when they come across the corpse of that large bird creature, the hallum. Olwyn watches as other animals feast on the bloodied body of the hallum — Kerschl draws her with wide eyes of curious hunger. Shortly after, Olwyn gives in to her animal urges and begins eating the hallum’s remains as well. Moro – the wise old man figure – notices the hallum’s blood on Queen Olwyn’s mouth. Moro encourages Olwyn to explore these new feelings and sensations she has as a tiger – no different from a parent talking their child through puberty.
With lush, vibrant colors and an intriguing first chapter, Isola 1 has enough mysterious world building to bring you back for the next issue.
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