Stargazer, by Von Allan
Lulu Award-nominated Ottawa cartoonist's second book moves out into an imaginative new world
Full disclosure: I've shaken Von Allan's hand and we have read one anothers' blogs for a year or two. We haven't socialized yet, but we've discussed the possibility. In short, though we're not friends, we're friendly, so take the following with as much or as little salt as your taste requires.
For the record, for the sake of my own reputation, it's my policy to ignore work of people I know personally, if I don't think highly of it; at the same time, if someone I know does good work, particularly if they are not backed by a large publishing juggernaut, I'd like to help get the word out. I don't believe my bias in favour of the author has rendered my judgement untrustworthy, but you might.
| Stargazer Volume 1: An Original All-Ages Graphic Novel
By Von Allan
115 pages, US$14.95
Ottawa cartoonist Von Allan's first book, the Lulu Award-nominated graphic novel, The Road to God Knows was a deeply personal story, and a very realistic account of a young girl's struggle with questions of loyalty and self-preservation while living with her severely mentally-ill mother, questions no child can be expected to even fully understand, let alone articulate.
The Road to God Knows was clearly the product of an artist still learning his craft, but was a heartfelt and even a moving book despite its flaws. It was just as clearly meant for readers as young as his protagonist and for older readers at the same time; in the world of North American comics, such a stab at a genuinely all-ages book is still far too much of a rarity.
With his second book, Stargazer, (the first volume in a longer series), Allan stays in the all-ages realm, but leaves realism far behind. Stargazer is a fantasy, kick-started with a well-worn, even creaky, conceit: the magic door.
In this case the "door" takes the shape of a mysterious "artifact", which young Marni inherited from her beloved, and recently-deceased, grandmother. Shortly after the latter's funeral, Marni and two of her friends are "camping out" in her backyard. The artifact is somehow activated and the three girls find themselves transported to another world, with no way back home.
When I said "three girls", I meant girls. Marni and her friends, Sophi and Elora, are pre-teenagers, 9 to 11.
As the author himself notes in the "Brainstorming" section which closes Volume One, if his heroines are to (realistically) survive on an alien world, the threats need to be tailored to their stature. At least through the first book, those dangers are mostly kept off-stage as the kids first try to come to terms with the fact that no one knows where they are.
Allan manages to convince us that his trio doesn't fall apart (though they do bicker), but manage to pull themselves together and set out to explore their new world with the (possibly unreasonable) hope they can find a way home.
Stargazer isn't likely to become a classic, at least not judged only by its first volume; there's no question this is the work of an artist still mastering his craft and there is no question that some of its flaws are hard to miss.
Von Allan's drawing is on the crude side. His figures are sometimes stiff and his command of anatomy is incomplete; similarly, his backgrounds are sketchy and he is obviously still experimenting with effectively making use of shading and spotted blacks.
Problematic too is the book's dialogue. Unlike some writers still in search of their voice, Allan's problem isn't that his characters' speech is too elaborate or too mannered, but the opposite. Stargazer's kids are forever stumbling over their words or nervously stammering, very much as people do in life — but which in fiction makes for a difficult read.
"W-what are we g-gonna do...?"
"I d-don't ... I ... I ..."
"I-I think w-we should turn the light o-off."
As I said, people often do talk very much like that in real life, but readers of fiction do not want reality in our stories, but verisimilitude, the illusion of the real, without most of the awkward and inconvenient bumps and blemishes which mean almost none of us speaks in iambic pentameter or breaks into orchestrated song on the street. As a rule, one or two hesitations are enough to let the reader know that, as above, a character is frightened, and so he or she can infer the rest.
But these are small cavils.
Fortunately, Von Allan's characterizations are much more successfully realized than his dialog; I don't yet feel like I know Marni and her friends well, but I know them well enough to want to know them better.
Similarly, though Allan's alien world will come as no shocking revelation to a generation familiar with Narnia and Star Trek and Doctor Who and any number of "other worlds" which just happen to be able to support human life without elaborate breathing apparatus and protective hazard suits, wherever it is that his trio has ended up is unfamiliar enough to intrigue this reader.
Marni and her friends are understandably frightened (who wouldn't be frightened to awaken under alien skies?) but manage to believably stay more or less in control of their fears and so begin to explore what seems to be an abandoned world, half-wild but with not-yet decrepit signs a vanished civilization, including a boat and functioning robot. And a mysterious (and very loud) off-stage monster.
This isn't a comic loaded with juvenile fight scenes or adult-oriented angst; instead it is the opening chapter of what promises to be a gentle (but not condescending!) adventure that really is "suitable for all ages".
I don't currently have a child to share this book with, so I'll just have to buy the next volume for myself.
This essay originally appeared in the Friday, November 19, 2010 edition of True North Perspective.