For pretty much as long as I’ve been able to read, I’ve been using fantasy stories as an escape. Real life can be painful, but stories provide temporary respite from that pain. Sometimes, when I felt powerless or at a loss, I’d find lessons in the fantasy worlds I escaped to, messages that gave me hope or reminded me of my strength.
The journey that I took in my imagination was often paralleled by the literal journey of the protagonist, some young person with hardships to face who found a place far away from their ordinary life, and learned a powerful lesson in the process. I’ve read many, many of these stories in my life, and I will read many, many more before I am dead. I love them; they’ve always been there for me; I will always need to escape sometimes to a faraway land where my problems seem small and irrelevant.
Today’s comic tells one of those fantasy stories of the kind that have enriched my life for so long. I present to you, Shadowbinders.
Please note that Shadowbinders is a narrative comic that must be read in order from the beginning. In order to discuss the comic, this post will necessarily contain a few spoilers about the setting. However, I will not mention specific plot points, nor will I give away revelations from late in the story. The first few chapters contain some “mysteries,” things that the characters are unaware or unsure of, and which therefore aren’t explicitly established for the reader from the beginning. A reader who is familiar with the genre, though, will suspect the answers to many of those mysteries almost as soon as the story begins. Therefore, I’ll proceed with the assumption that the reader is clever enough to figure out some of these things on their own, and treat them as given.
Shadowbinders follows Mia White, a typical teenage girl. Her ordinary life hits all of the expected notes, from her annoying family members to her impossible crush on a boy at school (who of course has the requisite mean, popular girlfriend).
And then she finds a magic ring, which transports her to the magical world of Belatyr. There, she meets Crimson Rhen, a powerful mage and captain of the True North, a flying ship. As one would expect, grave happenings are afoot in Belatyr, and Mia finds herself a reluctant participant as Rhen’s crew discover dangers to their homeland and do what they can to help.
With a story like this, that follows such well-established patterns, the fun is in the details. The specific mechanics of this fantasy world, the characterization of this particular hero, the dynamics between this protagonist and the people she meets. I particularly like the little visual gags and extras, things that the artist went to the trouble of including because they make the world seem fuller and more real, even when the scene could have progressed without their presence.
|This sign outside an apothecary might be my favorite thing in the whole comic.|
Rhen possesses that particular kind of arrogance that one can only get away with by being every bit as capable as one asserts. That doesn’t spare him the eye-rolls and disdain that others have for such arrogance, but it does prevent him from making a fool of himself. He can’t actually be said to be overconfident, because he lives up to the expectations he sets for himself. And while he either hasn’t found, or has no interest in finding, that balance whereby he can be confident without rubbing other people the wrong way, being a little bit obnoxious clearly suits him better than being a little bit obsequious. Clearly, having utter confidence in his ability to pull off extraordinary feats is a large part of what enables him to pull off those extraordinary feats at all.
Though there’s suspicion all round at first… Mia doesn’t know where she is or who these strange people on the True North are, and they don’t know who Mia is or how she got onto their ship… after some time, Mia and the crew members warm up to each other. She gets along well with most of them. When it comes to Rhen, though, the two of them bicker like Leia and Han. Though Rhen is famous in his world, Mia has no prior knowledge of him, and finds his presumptions unsettling. Rhen, for his own part, is used to people already being familiar with his reputation, and he doesn’t really know how to win someone over if they have no idea who he is.
One expects the two of them to continue getting one each others’ nerves until one day they realize just how close a bond they’ve formed during all of those spats. We’ll see how they react when that moment comes.
Often Shadowbinders is pretty silly in tone. The high fantasy setting and serious dramatic tension contrast with a few farcical characterizations and some fairly ridiculous events. Sometimes I’m not totally sure how seriously the comic is taking itself… there are a few moments when the dialog gets a little hokey and I’m not certain if it’s just exposition that got a little clunky or if it’s self-aware exposition drawing attention to itself.
Overall, what matters is less the intention behind the tone and more the effect the tone has on the reader, and for me, Shadowbinders is consistently loads of fun. The plot is well laid-out, with seeds planted early on that clearly indicate a larger picture that will become clear as the story grows. The villains’ machinations are straightforward enough that a reader can follow them, even with the twists and secrets and lies to keep track of. And there are a few mysteries that I’m still trying to figure out. Keeping an eye out for clues and finding answers before the characters do can be a great way to make oneself feel clever.
If you’re like me, then the possibility of losing yourself in a magical realm for a few hours is reason enough to dive into Shadowbinders. This fantasy world is full of things that couldn’t exist in our own, which for the longest time I always thought was the whole point of writing stories. There are entire civilizations here with an entirely different technological history than our own, where fanciful creatures face off against daring heroes in aerial battles.
Just looking at the artwork, taking in everything that the visuals have to tell you about Belatyr and the people who live there, is a huge part of Shadowbinders’ appeal. The images are what drew me into the world. The rest of it, story and character and atmosphere, are what made me want to stay there.
Shadowbinders is written by Kambrea Pratt and drawn by Thom Pratt. In later installments, the comic is colored by Brittany Peer. I encourage you to check it out and make use of the fantasy escapism if you ever need to get away from real life. As Mia leaves her world behind, so, dear reader, can you.