Begun as a webcomic and funded into print via Kickstarter, Charles Dowd’s “Lilith Dark and the Beastie Tree” is a labor of love, and it shows. The first six chapters, collected here, are cute, spirited and a little rough around the edges. They follow the adventures of Lilith Dark, a little girl whose overactive imagination comes in handy when it turns out that the beasties from her games are real. Though the story suffers from problems common to all-ages comics, there’s a catching zeal here that makes them forgivable.
Lilith is a likeably stubborn heroine, with a wide, square face that Dowd deftly transforms from childish pouts to determined scowls. She’s a fun character to follow through the world, and her family dynamic will be familiar to any child who’s watched a cartoon. Her sister, Becky, is responsible and a little high-strung; her brother, Dewey, is a Harry Potter doppelganger who draws geeky monster designs in his notebook.
However, the first third of the book feels like slow going. It’s a series of Lilith’s fantasies (battling swamp monsters, chasing down unicorns), which then give way to the real-life scenarios that have provoked them (taking a bath, popping her brother’s pimple). The conceit is cute at first, but its gets tiresome as these sequences accumulate. They don’t complement one another, so they feel repetitive.
Once they dive into the tree, though, things really pick up. Dowd has created a simple but enjoyable fantasy world for Lilith and her family to inhabit, and the designs for the beasties are just the right mix of adorable and ugly. The environment itself, with its big lines and just-after-evening colors, looks like a Halloween cartoon special. The action is easy to follow, and Dowd does a wonderful job with big, clear visual storytelling that would translate for younger readers.
However, the book has some issues. Lilith’s sister, Becky, is sketched thinly and less kindly than Lilith and Dewey. Now, little kids disliking their older siblings is a well-established trope, but the jokes about Becky are the sort that usually come from those older than teenagers. She’s into supernatural romances, and her fandom is played for a sort of contemptuous amusement that’s neither particularly funny nor particularly original. In addition, she has almost no agency or development, and it’s unclear why she seems to do so much of the parenting. It’s sad that a series which proudly rejects the trope that “little girls are princesses” so happily accepts the trope that “teenage girls are vapid.”
In addition, as with many all-ages comics, “Lilith Dark” sometimes makes the mistake of underestimating its audience. A few of the plot points that rely on suspense, such as the seeming deaths of characters, cut away to the reveal too quickly. It’s understandable; when writing for children, there’s a rush to reassure. But it also detracts from the relief that the reader ought to feel. Just a few more panels here and there would have been preferable.
“Lilith Dark and the Beastie Tree” has been pitched as an all-ages comic, but I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that designation. It’s definitely geared younger rather than all-ages, but that’s not a bad thing. Comics needs material that’s meant to satisfy younger readers, and “Lilith Dark” is a great introduction to the medium for any kid.