A young girl ventures into an abandoned, labyrinthine city in order to find her lost brother, despite it's being haunted by malevolent demons. One of the strengths of Wartman's debut graphic novel is that he doesn't vary much from that core story outline. He dabbles in a lot of overly familiar genre and mythological tropes to be sure (there's some business with the demons being named and people entering the city forgetting who they are) but he doesn't play up these elements too strongly or let them overwhelm the story, instead keeping the focus on the girl and her desire to locate her brother. I also liked the relationship between the girl and a somewhat helpful demon who seems so astonished that someone would willingly enter the city that he ends up acting as a benefactor. Again, it's a familiar trope, but paces the story well enough that it never once feels rote or cliched.
Another key to the book's success is the city itself. I can't emphasize enough the need for cartoonists, especially young cartoonists, to set their stories in a well-defined universe. This is especially true in fantasy stories, where the reader needs to get a sense of the physical world the characters inhabit in order to be willing to accept the supernatural and logic-defying events that occur in the story. You can't map out Wartman's city in your head, but the seemingly endless panels of well-detailed corridors, stairs, gardens and passageways give a sense of scale to the story. The city seems so foreboding and ancient, you worry the characters really will lose their way. Overall I just appreciated this well-structured, engrossing adventure tale and hope it's a sign of more good things to come from this particular cartoonist.
There's something about Monster on the Hill that failed to click with me and I'm not quite sure what it is. Certainly it's nice to see Harrell, who did the canceled-too-soon comic strip Big Top a few years ago, still making comics. And certainly the plot, about a monster reluctant to scare/protect the town he lives near and the little boy and professor that try to help him regain his confidence, is solid enough. And Harrell's a funny guy -- certainly there's enough jokes here that made me smile, if not outright laugh.
But none of the various elements -- the comedy, Rayburn the monster's emotional arc, the fight scenes -- ever really gelled together for me. I never really doubted that Rayburn would eventually save the day and couldn't really bring myself to care too much if he would or not. I found the little kid annoying, was confused why the story was set in England (Why not just set it in some generic fantasy land and be done with it? Especially if you're just going to play fast and loose with the accents and scenery) and felt the plot ambled a little too slowly to arrive at the climax. I have little doubt that kids will enjoy this comic -- there's enough here for them to hand their wee coats on -- but for me this was one of those "all-ages" books that really isn't for all ages.
The best kinds of children's comics are the ones where the characters are all selfish and mean to each other, i.e. just about every John Stanley comic. It's no big shock to the system to note that comedy doesn't come out of observing people's general good natures and general decency. And when your cast of characters involves kids – or at least anthropomorphic animals that behave like kids – playing up the selfishness, neediness and obliviousness that just about every child under the age of ten exhibits at one point or another can result in a proverbial gold mine of comedy.
Such it is with this second volume of Anna & Froga, in which Anna and her friends lie, argue, fuss and generally behaving in inconsiderate and occasionally downright mean ways, in that manner that children do when they're still learning the niceties of social interaction. In fact, the best story in the book involves the extremely obnoxious cousin coming to visit and acting like the worst house guest ever. I think most young readers will get a thrill out of seeing such outlandish behavior while understanding t's not something they should imitate. But if they do, well, I hereby absolve myself of all responsibility.