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Genre literature only very rarely surprises a reader's expectations. In crime fiction, the detective solves the mystery, in adventure stories the bad guy gets his violent comeuppance and in a romance the girl gets the boy. Still less often does a children's fantasy stray much past the bounds of the familiar.
Very much to his credit (and, I hope, without giving too much away), the conclusion of Ottawa's Lulu Award nominated writer and artist Von Allan's new graphic novel, Stargazer Volume Two, takes what seems bound to be a tedious variation on And then she woke up a frankly shocking last-minute twist.
And with the twist, Stargazer takes flight, if it does not quite soar into the heavens. Allan's fantasy of three young girls trapped on an alien world and, like Dorothy Gale of Kansas, desperate to return home, becomes a story that, instead of providing no more for its intended (young) audience a diversion for an hour or two, should leave many among them moved, possibly to tears.
Stargazer is a children's fantasy with consequences.
A single story released in two volumes for the very simple reason that an artist must eat, Volume Two picks up where Volume One left off.
Our unlikely young heroines, Marni, Sophie and Elora, along with their new-found mute robot friend (who looks a bit too much like a cuddly Cyberman for my tastes) have reached the mysterious castle they spotted in the previous book. To their bitter disappointment, it is old, damaged and seemingly abandoned. The help they had been counting on doesn't look like it's about to appear.
Entirely by coincidence, I learned that Von Allan has decided to release electronic versions of his books under a Creative Commons licence. Which means you can download it for free in a number of formats. (But please note there is a donation button at his site; I hope you will use it if you enjoy his work.)
While I am still very much in love with my e-reader, I still think comics are best read on paper, and Von Allan's work is still available in that old-fashioned format.
But at a compbined price of US$29.90, Stargazer's 174 pages of story come with more than a bit of a sticker-shock attached. Compare that, for instance, with Eddie Campbell's recent Alex: The Years Have Pants (review coming soon[ish]!), a book that runs more than 600 pages and that cost me only 35 bucks. Art isn't like widgets (or shouldn't be), but even so, that disparity can't help Stargazer's sales figures.
Though no one has asked me, I'm going to suggest that Allan consider re-releasing Stargazer in a single-volume edition, with or without the story notes and other extras that come with the individual books. A novel for $20 ought to be a much easier sell than two half-novels at 15 bucks apiece.
Worse still, the monster which had been but an off-stage roar is now a visible, physical, presence and on the attack, forcing the girls to take shelter in a castle whose stone walls promise only a temporary defense.
(That monster, unfortunately — a giant, ambulatory head that kind of bounces around without any visible means of locomotion — brings Allan's limitations as a draftsman into sharp relief. I suspect even a small child is unlikely to find the apparition frightening, but happily, Allan the writer saves the situation. As with a (good) old-time Doctor Who episode, shaky sets and low-budget effects are redeemed by the story.)
The children fend off the monster's first attack — but just barely, and at a significant and unexpected cost, a foreshadowing that warns the perceptive reader that Stargazer is not going to follow all of the conventions of a children's fantasy. What I called a "gentle adventure" in my review of Stargazer Volume One turns out to have quite a sting.
The story's complications arise in large part because of the very real nature of the girls themselves. Allan's heroines are not idealized fighting machines, nor are they a "team" with a clear leader; they are three friends, transported to a world they do not understand and with which they can only (barely) cope. That they argue among themselves as they try to think their way out of their terrifying predicament is only natural.
So it is that the schism that comes midway through the second book feels inevitable and right, as a good plot-twist should. And so to does it lead towards the book's climax and its unexpected and moving coda. The story that seemed to be turning inevitably into yet another cheat of a dream story — And then she woke up! — thank god, proves to be something very different.
Stargazer is not a beautiful graphic novel. Von Allan's artwork is far from slick, but it serves his story of friendship and loyalty and of loss well enough. If you know a young reader who enjoys comics, or who shows signs that he (or she!) might enjoy the form, Stargazer could be an excellent gateway drug.Spread the word!
Spread the word!