Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Entry 73: Alice Grove

Today we’re talking about a comic that merges the fantastical with the quaint. That in and of itself is nothing unusual… many works of fantasy take place in an approximation of a historical period, placing fantastical elements in a setting of pastoral bliss. Indeed, many of our commonly used fantasy tropes, the creatures and monsters with which we populate our stories, have been gestating in our collective minds for hundreds or thousands of years, and seem more appropriate in old-timey villages than modern cities.

In this case, though, the fantastical doesn’t have that classic feeling, that sense of tradition. It takes its strangeness more from the realm of science fiction than fantasy. Many characters seem right out of a history book, but things exist in their world that would rightfully come from the distant future. This odd juxtaposition gives us the initial point of intrigue to Alice Grove.

The titular Alice is called a witch by the people who know her. She’s not a witch in the traditional sense, but the title suits her. She’s wise, strong, and possesses abilities and powers beyond those that might be readily apparent. Indeed, given that I was raised Wiccan, surrounded by people who describe themselves as witches, Alice suits my personal vision of a witch better than just about any other fictional witch I’ve ever seen.

Alice Grove is the kind of story that throws the reader right into an unfamiliar setting without any preparation or upfront exposition. I love those kinds of stories. Discovering the background of the setting and the characters’ histories becomes a part of the plot, as the reader spends time coming to understand what normal means to the characters.

These kinds of stories are also very fragile in terms of spoilers, as even facts about the setting can give away major reveals. I’ll be careful not to give very much away, but if you’re very sensitive to spoilers, tread lightly. And if you decide to dive in, you definitely want to start at the very beginning.

One aspect of this comic that keeps buzzing around in my mind is the nature of Alice’s relationship to the villagers who make up most of the comic’s population. She lives apart from them, in a literal sense as her home is not part of the village proper, and a metaphorical sense as she interacts with them as a clear outsider, albeit one afforded great respect and even authority.

Alice appears assuredly benevolent, and I can definitely sympathize with her, but sometimes the way she treats the villagers seems unreasonably authoritarian. I keep going back and forth on this, because it’s clear that Alice has well-reasoned justification for behaving the way she does, and also that her actions have overwhelmingly positive impact. But it’s also clear that Alice does not readily tolerate disagreement. As a red-blooded American, I place high value upon the right to speak against, question, or outright defy the wishes of others, even those who serve as protectors and advisers to the entire population. And from that angle, some of the things Alice does really bother me.

Alice interacting with villagers provides a setting and context for the plot, but the meat of the story has to do with Ardent and Gavia, siblings who’ve arrived in the village to… well, to meet girls, in Ardent’s case, and to track down her brother, in Gavia’s.

Strange as it seems, those two characters are the closest thing the audience has to a point of identification. They are outsiders, new to the village, unfamiliar with Alice, and we discover the setting through their eyes. It’s very common for a story to begin with a stranger arriving in town, giving the audience an ‘in’ to get to know the other characters and what their deal is. What’s uncommon about this story is that the stranger is not a generic everyman meant to be easily relatable to everyone, but a pair of futuristic, heavily modified humans whose own home is at least as strange to us as the setting we’re actually getting to observe.

Much of the time, Ardent displays an enthusiasm that I find easy to get caught up in. To be sure, he’s artless and treats the locals somewhat rudely, viewing their culture and lifestyle as little but a source of entertainment. But… if I were in his situation I’d be acting much the same way. That quaint little town is just so charming, and so different to everything I’m used to, that I might have a hard time containing myself were I to travel there and meet its inhabitants.

However, I as a reader have the privilege of engaging with this setting at a distance. Therefore, I don’t have to fear for my safety when I encounter the marvelous and sometimes frightening things that can be found at night in the woods outside the village. We only get to see hints of the wider world that Alice Grove inhabits, but those hints are enough to let us know that there is a wider world out there, and that it possesses a logic and coherence all its own.

Mostly, though, it lets us see some friggin’ cool and borderline disturbing living things. I’m a sucker for these kinds of weird and wonderful visuals.

There’s a lot going on in Alice Grove. The setup for how the world came to be the way it is and why the characters are where they are and who they are all vie for the coveted position as ‘central intrigue’ of the story. Meanwhile, the plot progresses, tying backstory and overall motivation into the current moment in story time. I won’t give away the plot, but it’s at turns fun, tragic, humorous, and meaningful. We’re still in early days, and with every new installment I’m excited to learn what happens next.

Alice Grove is written and drawn by Jeph Jacques, known also for Questionable Content, which I wrote about here. If you like Questionable Content, then chances are you’ll enjoy the humor and style of Alice Grove. However, it has a different feel overall, and if Questionable Content isn’t your thing, but you like science fiction and prefer a more plot-oriented story than the slice-of-life kind of thing you get with Questionable Content, then maybe you should consider giving Alice Grove a try. Right now it’s pretty easy to read through everything and get caught up to the latest installment, so there’ll never be an easier time to discover what Alice Grove is all about.

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