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With Afar, Image Comics makes a major play for the YA graphic novel market

Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Afar. Written by Leila Del Duca (Shutter, Scarlet Witch) with art by Kit Seaton (The Black Bull Of Norroway, Otto The Odd And The Dragon King), this original graphic novel is a striking example of why more publishers should use this format for new stories. (This review reveals major plot points.)

One of the most lucrative markets in the comics industry is original graphic novels for young adults, but it’s been largely untapped by the major monthly comic publishers in the U.S. That’s slowly starting to change, though, and books like Image Comics’ Afar show the benefits of embracing the graphic novel format for stories aimed at teenage readers. Image has put out a lot of YA-friendly fantasy series recently that read better in collections rather than single issues—Monstress, Mirror, From Under Mountains, Arclight—and it’s refreshing to see the publisher bypass the single issues and just go straight to releasing a graphic novel, giving readers a complete story all at once.

Afar is the first graphic novel written by Leila Del Duca, who has done incredible work as the artist on Image’s Shutter. It’s an impressive debut that reveals her skill for creating a compelling concept and multidimensional characters while still trusting her artist to carry much of the storytelling weight. When artists jump over to writing, there are two things that typically happen: Either they overcompensate with narration and dialogue because they’re not fully comfortable with their writing role or the skills of the artist, or they understand the value of letting the visuals drive the narrative and give their collaborator room to breathe. Afar does the latter, and Del Duca has a strong creative rapport with artist Kit Seaton that makes for a rich, smooth reading experience.

Seaton primarily works in webcomics, and she’s one of the many webcomic creators that deserves the exposure of working on a title for a major print publisher. There are a lot of similarities between Seaton’s and Del Duca’s artwork, and it’s interesting to see Seaton draw inspiration from Del Duca and colorist Owen Gieni’s artwork on Shutter for the visuals in Afar. This feels like Seaton’s attempt to gain a better understanding of her collaborator’s storytelling style, and it works to create a deep connection between the script and the art. It also forms an aesthetic bond between Afar and its sister comic, and fans of Del Duca’s series with writer Joe Keatinge will find a lot to appreciate in this new graphic novel.

Afar tells the story of a 15-year-old girl, Boetema, who discovers she can project her consciousness to other planets when she sleeps. She’s already dealing with significant stress in her personal life as she takes care of her 13-year-old brother, Inotu, after their parents leave the city to look for work, but her situation becomes even more complicated and confusing thanks to this new ability, which she doesn’t understand and cannot control. The siblings are forced to leave home when Inotu lands on the wrong side of the law, and as they try to survive in the desert, Boetema finds herself desperate to get back to the body of an alien girl, Lindu, who she inadvertently put in danger. The relationship between Boetema and Inotu is the book’s emotional core, and while Boetema is the lead, Inotu gets considerable attention thanks to scenes that are accompanied by his grammatically incorrect, misspelled journal entries. Inotu’s writing improves as Boetema acclimates to her power, and having individual skills for both characters to develop gives them more pronounced arcs in the narrative.

Afar is set in a postindustrial desert wasteland that combines elements of Northern African and Middle Eastern cultures in the architecture and clothing, but it also jumps to spectacular fantasy locales when Boetema travels across the universe. Those jumps are some of the most fascinating parts of Afar. They’re the moments when the creative team’s imagination runs wild, and they serve as an especially effective showcase of Seaton’s versatility as an inker, colorist, and letterer. She handles nearly all aspects of the visuals (Del Duca contributes some character designs and the occasional page layout) and does remarkable work across the board. Her environments are sprawling and immersive, and her characters are brimming with personality that makes them immediately engaging. The painted colors are delicate yet vivid, and she does beautiful work with light sources to add dimension to the linework. She letters the majority of the dialogue with a curved font that makes the language appear more striking, and when Boetema ends up in a new body, the letters change to reflect the speech of the alien civilization.

The scenes on Boetema’s home planet give readers a lasting impression of this world and its people, but the glimpses of other planets and alien civilizations bring an exciting unpredictability to the story and artwork that intensifies the book’s forward momentum. The first astral projection offers an intense contrast to the desert planet as Boetema finds herself in the body of a humanoid fish creature: The desert is replaced by an underwater seascape; the character design is a mix of the Creature From The Black Lagoon and an anglerfish; the coloring switches from oranges and blues to reds and purples; and the lettering becomes more jagged. The impact of this moment is heightened by a majestic shot of whales swimming overhead, leaving Boetema in awe but also completely perplexed by these new surroundings.

The rendering in both the linework and the coloring changes depending on where Boetema’s consciousness ends up, and the lettering becomes more reliant on symbols rather than text. Alien tigers speak in a language that looks like claw slashes. Alien snakes speak in a tongue presented as wavy, vibrating lines. There are so many cool little details in each jump, and I hope there’s an Afar sequel because I want to see this creative team spend more time in these different worlds. Boetema is a living cloud for a single panel, but it introduces all kinds of intriguing questions: What does that civilization look like? What abilities does she gain in this body? What is the life story of that cloud?

As Boetema learns later from an insectoid guru, her powers evolve as she gets used to them, and getting a flood of memories from her host body is one of the first indications that she’s growing. When she finally makes it back to Lindu’s body, she has her first memory download, presented with three pages using a nine-panel grid, which is one of the best layouts for providing a lot of information. Different colors are used to quickly separate individual memories that vary in length, and the combination of the layout and the coloring is an intelligent, concise way of making this information easy for readers to follow while also reinforcing the aggressive assault this memory deluge makes on Boetema.

One of the most surprising things about Afar is the cover credit for editor Taneka Stotts, who most recently edited Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi And Fantasy Comic Anthology and ELEMENTS: Fire, a comics anthology by creators of color. Stotts is building a name for herself as a smart organizer and curator of talent, and putting her name on the cover lets readers know that she’s an integral part of the Afar team. Unlike the writer and artist, it’s much harder to evaluate what the editor’s exact contributions are to the final product, but all the signs of good editing can be seen in Afar: a cohesive creative team, sharp attention to detail, and a story that balances character development with world building. Stotts’ comprehensive understanding of the sci-fi genre makes her a great resource for these two creators as they build their own sci-fi universe, and her presence on the team enriches the material.

A YA original graphic novel with an all-female creative team, Afar isn’t the kind of comic you see often from the likes of Image Comics (or Marvel and DC, for that matter), and hopefully the reception will be good enough that this team can reunite for a sequel. Graphic novels tend to be a better value than single issues, and Afar isn’t an exception. It retails for $14.99 in print, which is a very reasonable price considering its page count is double what you would get for that amount in $3.99 single issues, and the digital edition is $3 cheaper. (You can actually get Afar for $7.99 on ComiXology right now, though that price probably won’t last for long.) This is a comic that takes full advantage of the medium’s creative possibilities to craft an emotional, invigorating story, and it would be wonderful if the industry embraced it and opened the door for more original graphic novels executed with this level of care and ambition.