"I awoke in the morning, cold rain on my face, and you were beside me in a desolate place"
I picked up Baba Yaga's Assistant mainly because Emily Carroll draws it, and I dig Carroll's art. But it also had such an unusual hook (who would want to be Baba Yaga's assistant?) that I figured it would be pretty keen.
McCoola begins with an intriguing premise, one that she doesn't bother to explain but doesn't really need explanations anyway: She imagines a world where everyone knows that Baba Yaga is real and she's not exactly exclusively a Slavic figure (the people in the comic speak English, but more than that, they just seem like regular white North Americans). As usual with any world where fictional characters are presented as real, this sounds like a terrifying reality, but everyone seems fairly blasé about it. In that way, Carroll is a good choice as the artist, as her line work is often quite basic, which probably sounds like a criticism but I hope isn't. Carroll, when she's just drawing to tell a story, is often not fancy, allowing her characters' big eyes and eyebrows to express their emotions, and she doesn't overhatch her faces or clothing. A lot of artists use different line weights to add texture or shading to their art, but in her most basic storytelling mode, Carroll doesn't do this.
That's not to say she can't be "fancy," and that's why she's a good artist for this comic. Her depiction of Baba Yaga and her house (which strolls around on chicken legs, if you recall your Slavic folklore) is nicely contrasted with Masha and her "real" world, as Carroll makes her bit more angular than the people in the "real" world, gives her longer, sharper fingers, and generally makes her look horrifying. Her eyes are less expressive than Masha and the "normal" people in the comic, but she is grander in her body language, as she slinks around, grinning evilly, as she puts Masha through all sorts of tests to see if the girl is worthy of being her assistant. Where the consistency of line weight comes into play very well is when Carroll draws old legends that Masha remembers to help her with Baba Yaga's test. Carroll erases the pencil lines, so that the characters are just beautiful blocks of color, as Carroll's paints become the dominant medium in those "flashbacks." She uses ornate panel borders that look like woodcuts to separate those flashbacks from the main narrative, and they stand out wonderfully from the rest of the book. Carroll's colors in the book in general are superb - she uses red on characters' faces as an expressive device quite well, and the contrast between Masha's healthy glow and Baba Yaga's deathly visage is clever. She keeps the colors muted for the most part inside Baba Yaga's house, and there's a really nice moment toward the end when she uses bright yellow in a dark forest as a color of hope. If you've enjoyed Carroll's art on her own projects, you can check this out for the same style without the horror element that Carroll often brings to her own work.
The book isn't exactly super-cheery (I mean, it's Baba Yaga, who eats children, after all), but Carroll gets to draw in a slightly lighter tone, and especially in the color scheme, the book is a bit brighter than her darker tales.
As I noted, McCoola's story isn't exactly cheery, but on the surface, it's fairly charming, as Masha decides to answer a newspaper advertisement in which Baba Yaga wants an assistant. She has magical talent that she inherited from her grandmother (her mother is dead and never appears in the book, so it's not clear if she, too, had magical talent), and she's a typical teenager who wants to break free of her boring life. The parts of the book with Masha trying to prove herself to Baba Yaga are nicely done, as Baba Yaga gives Masha seemingly impossible tasks and Masha attempts to complete them, with varying degrees of success. One of the tests has to do with preparing children for Baba Yaga to eat, and that forces Masha to out-think her boss to stay on her good side but not let her, you know, eat the kids. McCoola keeps those moments a bit light (yes, even the sequence when Masha is supposed to be cooking children) because of the underlying themes of the book. Masha's grandmother is dead, but we see her in flashbacks, and she and Masha have a wonderful relationship. Her grandmother tells her about magic, tells her stories about Baba Yaga, and helps her get through her feelings about her dead mother. Masha needs to remember her grandmother because at the beginning of the book, her father brings home his new girlfriend and her young daughter and tells Masha he's getting married again.
McCoola doesn't handle this as well as she could - I doubt even a dad as clueless as Masha's would not introduce his fiancée and her daughter to his own child before proposing - but she wants to get to the point, that Masha feels alone in the world and she's looking for something to fill that void. Her dad isn't a bad guy, he's just not very bright when it comes to his daughter, and she yearns for a relationship like she had with her grandmother (which Baba Yaga, in a twisted way, provides) and the thrill of adventure, which she finds odd that her grandmother never pursued. Of course, her new step-sister, Danielle, is one of the kids taken by Baba Yaga, and as she's a horrid little girl, Masha has to save her even though I think we can all agree Danielle probably ought to go into a pot. McCoola does a nice job taking a fairly standard idea - teenagers need to spread their wings - and placing it in an interesting context. Masha wants to grow up, but what's fascinating about the book is that McCoola shows that even in her desire for independence, she still needs someone. Freedom is great, but connectivity is comforting, and McCoola manages to blend these two ideas quite well in the comic.
There's a lot to like about Baba Yaga's Assistant - it looks great, it's often fun to read, and it delves into emotional themes that don't get resolved easily. It's definitely kid-friendly, which is always nice, and it's very entertaining. What more do you need?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆