Pssh, like I’m going to discover a book about a barbarian riding a giant pug and NOT read the heck out of it.
When table buddy Sanford Greene told me about BattlePug at The Tangled Web’s Free Comic Book Day event, I knew I’d found a new favorite before I even opened the cover. Volume 1 of Mike Norton’s webcomic-turned-graphic novel follows the nameless barbarian, The Last Kinmundian, as he seeks to avenge the destruction of his home by killing the monster that obliterated it. Standard barbarian stuff, except that the creature that destroyed Kinmundy? It’s an evil baby seal.
And lacking a village to toughen and angst up his barbarian self, he finds plenty of toughening and angst when he’s rescued and enslaved by the Northland Elves. Who are basically Santa’s elves. Led by a dude who is basically Santa.
Did I mention that he also rides a big ol’ pug?
If you don’t already know what you’re getting into with this comic, these two panels sum up its style perfectly:
And those two panels tell me all I need to know to love the snortin’ heck out of BattlePug.
That said, for people who do not have an irrational love of pugs or comics conceived during Drink and Draws (as this one was. Obviously), it leaves a little to be desired. As mentioned earlier, its story is pretty standard barbarian-seeking-revenge fare, with its comedic elements (and mainly the pug) being the sole feature that make it stand out. There’s nothing particularly original or engaging about the characters, and the comedic elements are not handled in a way that makes them inextricable from the world. Kinmundy could have just as easily been destroyed by a giant kitten, and regrettably even the titular BattlePug could be interchanged with another similarly silly looking creature and still maintain the sense of humor.
A note for parents: While the main storyline is fairly kid-friendly (some blood notwithstanding), it’s told by the mysterious and sexy Moll, whose chosen article of clothing is a bed sheet, if anything at all. You rarely see anything more than a nice butt, but it’s worth knowing if your kid hasn’t reached a developmental stage that can handle butts.
BattlePug isn’t exactly a hidden gem, then, but readers looking for comics in the same ridiculous vein as, say, Axe Cop (another of my faves), will find some amusement here. Pug-loving readers like me, however, will likely be adding all subsequent books in the series to their collections. (In fact, I just requested the second from my local comic shop!)
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Graphic Novel Review
Before God sends children down from Heaven, he gives them hearts. A child who swallows a blue heart will be a “brave boy,” while a child who swallows a red heart will be a “graceful girl.” However, when the mischievous angel Tink decides to play a trick, a child destined to be a girl ends up with both, and she’s on her way to being born before God can stop it. God thus curses Tink to life on Earth as a human; the only way for Tink to become an angel again is to reclaim the girl’s boy heart.
This task is not as easy as it seems, for the girl has just been born to the royal family of Silverland. This family needs a boy to continue the royal line, or else risk being usurped by the evil Duke Duralumin. The king and queen thus decide to keep her true gender secret, raising her as Prince Sapphire to protect their crown. Thus begins a fast-paced tale of adventure, mistaken genders, and the hijinks that ensue.
I usually don’t enjoy gender-bender manga, as the gender-bending aspect is often played for silly humor, but Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight, Part I is a rare exception. It reads like a twist on even modern fairy tales, where the princess is both damsel in distress and literally her own prince, and where her ever-changing gender is a source of legitimate drama, rather than an amusing plot point.
This permeates nearly every conflict she faces. Most prominently, the constant threat of Duralumin finding out that she’s not really a prince looms heavily, not only because of what it means for her but what it could mean for the kingdom. This conflict affects her in even small, if convoluted ways, too. At one point, a prince of a neighboring kingdom falls in love with her female “disguise,” only to pledge to kill Prince Sapphire in a later (unrelated) plot twist, not realizing that he and “the flaxen-haired maiden” are one and the same. (Talk about a complicated relationship!)
Despite the gendered nature of its plot, though, the novel is surprisingly unconcerned with gender roles or politics (at least, beyond the basic OMG A GIRL CAN’T RULE A KINGDOM LET’s PANIC ABOUT THAT trope). The closest it comes to commenting on such topics is in a scene where Sapphire briefly loses her boy heart and thus, with only the girl heart remaining, becomes weak. At first the scene inspires an “UGH of course she would become all faint and pansylike without her boy heart,” but upon rereading, it also begs the question, “Is it better to have the associated qualities of only one gender? Or is it better to have a combination of both?” Though it’s a small scene and a simple question, it’s thematically very relevant, and the whole book is a positive answer to this question.
Refreshingly, it’s also not loudly self-aware of its theme, like many Strong Female Character books can be. More than anything, the novel is concerned with taking readers on an adventuresome romp through a fairy-tale-inspired fantasy land, rather than offering any commentary at all. And romp it does! Sapphire teams up with pirates, fights evil witches, swordfights through pretty much everything, and never once stops being anything but a swashbuckling hero/heroine (even though she occasionally does stop to cry over stuff). At 346 pages, it’s a pretty good size for a graphic novel, and yet I was still surprised by how much action was packed into it.
Because of its structure, Princess Knight is bound to appeal to both male and female readers who like this kind of story. There are some hurdles to jump, though, especially for readers who are accustomed to modern manga. Tezuka’s art, while iconic, may look a bit too cartoony and dated for some readers today. In fact, I’d initially avoided his work myself for that reason. Something about the art in Princess Knight, though, was absolutely charming to me, perhaps because it matched the storybook flair of the setting so well. It should also be noted that the art is printed very cleanly, and though the style is simplistic, many of the panels are quite pretty to look at. Another hurdle is the themed naming of the bad guys—Duke Duralumin (a type of alloy), Lord Plastic, Lord Nylon—which doesn’t contribute anything to the story other than inexplicable goofiness. (There are plenty of other goofy elements in the story, but they’re much better handled than this.) Lord Nylon also has a lisp that is rather insensitively played for humor, but it also contributes to a significant early plot point, so it’s not like it’s there without a reason. Still, after that plot point happens, it does read a bit unkindly.
These bumps are minor compared to the delight that is the rest of the book, though. With plenty of adventure, several unexpected twists, and a fun storybook quality, Princess Knight has quickly become one of my favorites.
I came across Princeless by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin at a local comic convention and didn’t have to think twice before picking it up. The cover alone promised all kick-butt girls, dragons, and adventure galore. It did not disappoint.
In Volume 1, when Princess Adrienne comes of age, she’s locked in a dragon-guarded tower because that’s A Thing That Happens to Princesses. Between the boredom of waiting and the dim-witted knights who show up to rescue her, she tires of this quickly. She decides that she’s going to be her own knight and so, with the aid of her dragon pal Sparky, rescues herself and embarks on a quest to free her sisters from their own towers.
A blurb on the front of this book calls it “the story Disney should’ve been telling for the past twenty years.” It’s entirely true. Adrienne is smart; the first few pages show a younger Adrienne tearing apart the plot holes in a traditional fairy tale. She’s also resourceful, and though she admittedly has a lot to learn about adventuring, she’s a capable heroine, well worth admiring.
Granted, she is entirely the “Not the Typical Princess” trope – a trope which, given that nearly every fictional princess these days is “Not the Typical Princess,” is becoming somewhat tired. However, Princeless makes this work by surrounding her with inversions of many other medieval fantasy tropes. Most obviously, despite the European-inspired setting, nearly every character in the main cast is a person of color. Likewise, Adrienne’s prince brother, who would normally be a heroic manly man in this sort of story, is meek and hesitant to inherit the throne, to the point where his father tells him to “stop being a woman.” Instead, his strength is found in his loyalty to his family and, unbeknownst to Adrienne, he plays a small but significant role in the beginning of her adventure.
Even the adventuresome elements are somewhat inverted. While it is all rollicking and fun, Adrienne encounters several practical bumps on her way to saving her sisters, discovering that dragons are hard to ride without saddles, and that it’s hard to fight in jangly armor that isn’t fitted to one’s body type. Though I usually prefer over-the-top adventure, it’s a nice change of pace to read about an adventurer whose problems are more mundane (well, for a person who has a dragon as a friend).
The comic is not without its flaws. However, most of them are minor. For some reason, the quality of the third chapter’s art falters in comparison to the art around it. It’s never off enough to be distracting, though. A bigger problem for me was that there are points where it feels like it’s trying too hard to be a commentary on sexist fantasy tropes. One chapter (also the third, in fact) is blatantly titled “On Sexism in the Armor Industry.” As relevant as the chapter is, I found it hard to believe that the female blacksmith introduced here designed and hand-made a whole line of armor for women without once realizing how impractical battlekinis are for protection—at least until Adrienne points it out. Throw in some stereotypical piggish behavior on the part of nearly every male in the scene, and the chapter reads like it was constructed solely to make a point. Fortunately, though, its actiony bits maintain the rest of the book’s sense of fun. And even with this forced point, it never reads like a preachy political pamphlet. Ultimately it treats its messages with the same sense of fun that it does its adventure.
That said, Princeless is a must-read for those who like to read about heroines with no time for princes. Still, casual readers of fantasy, comics and non, will find much to like in it, too.