Paul Allor and Thomas Boatright's Orc Girl checks all the boxes for things I not only love, but ache for in fiction – non-traditional leads, surprising coming of age stories, strong female lead characters, stereotype busting, beautiful atypical art, and smart lovely writing. But sometimes creators forget that checking those boxes – whether for political correctness or passion – doesn’t make something good. It still has to be good.
Orc Girl is GOOD.
Orc Girl is a 22-page black and white one-shot that is a simple story of an orc named Fern and her brother Bogar. When you buy Orc Girl (print for $3.00 and $1.00 for a pdf - what a freaking bargain) you also get 26 additional pages of Allor short stories - all quite entertaining - but not what I'm here to discuss - back to Orc Girl!
Orc Girl is a study in contradictions, in the best of ways. It's technically a coming of age story, but it doesn't dwell on Fern's youth, instead it rockets through her life, after a tragedy, almost like seeing a life flash before your eyes in a near death experience. But because Allor is so smart about both what his story is and how he presents it to the reader, it works. Walking into Orc Girl, from the teaser image to the opening pages you would think it will be a story about Fern's adventures in the big world. Instead is it almost the opposite. And there again, are the beautiful contradictions. The opening line (and the tag line) of the book is:
"The world is as large as you want it to be..."
There are a lot of ways to follow that sentence, but what Allor chooses is a nice surprise to me:
"And for the Orc people it was a small, small place, indeed."
Instantly I am curious. So many of us think our lives will be one thing, only to wake up much much older and find ourselves on entirely different paths and with strangely unexpected lives behind us. And so it is, without massive exposition or emo-whining, Allor presents just that, a life gone off track, not necessarily in a bad way, but just unexpected. And there's nothing I like to check more when it comes to my "favorite boxes" than something unexpected. Unexpected is always a delight. Orc Girl is unexpected in almost every way, which will be challenging for some people, but challenge is a great thing, especially in fiction.
One of the many unexpected aspects of the book is that not only is it black and white, but Boatright's style is incredibly loose. I tend to love sketchier work as I find it has a life and energy lacking in so much soulless though technically perfect art I see, but I admit the style of Orc Girl won't be for everyone. For me, it was exactly what I wanted. If you like your art emotive and moody, kinetic and enthusiastic, and both a bit cute and a bit scary, you're in the right place. The character design is simple, which manages to make Fern, Bogar, and their people both "monstrous" without idealizing them in an annoying way, and also infusing them with the character and "humanity" if you will, that makes them necessarily adorable and relatable.
The looseness only affects the storytelling negatively one time (during a dramatic action sequence on the water) where it's deliberately obscure for storytelling purposes but still slightly frustrating. The rest of the time the energetic storytelling works incredibly in Orc Girl's favor, capturing those moments in every life that are both horribly unique and also devastatingly universal with simple strokes of the pen. Boatright excels at acting and he knows when it's important to add more detail and when he can technically do less and still make it feel like so much more. While Orc Girl is surely Allor's story (as it feels in ways like his other stories featured here) Boatright brings out the best in the tale, breathing a life and kinetic energy into every panel.
One of the best things Orc Girl does that I personally appreciate is that it's one of those stories that feels effortlessly for both children and adults. I suspect children can appreciate the simple graphic visuals, and the scary cute-ness of Fern and her people, as well as many aspects of the story (though they may find it pretty sad and maybe even a bit scary in places) but for adults it can work on so many other levels. I say this as someone that does not have children and sometimes cringes at the idea of the banal art I would have to ingest if I had a child. The mountains of cliche and cloying crap that exists in all my beloved mediums - comics, movies, television, music - mediums I have built so much of my life on - is staggering. And the idea of eating shitty versions of them by the spoonful always makes me wary and thus, excited to find something that is resonant for both age groups. Though I am no expert (since, as mentioned, I have no children) Orc Girl strikes me as one of those - one of those that all ages can enjoy together, knowing that they have something wonderful before them, and most importantly, something that speaks to them at wherever they may be at that point in their lives.
ORC GIRL by Paul Allor and Thomas Boatright is available in either print or pdf format via Allor's website. And you can follow Allor on twitter, to find out what awesome thing he's up to next. You can also read a six-page preview here.