Isola #1: A gorgeous song of loyalty and longing
This is an advance review of Isola #1, on sale April 4.
In a world where giant bird-gods fall from the sky by the arrows of brutal hunting clans, where spirit guides roam the deep, misty forest in the guise of the fox—into this world we follow Olwyn, the tiger-queen, and her faithful champion Rook, hearts longing for the fabled shores of Isola.
We all long for Isola
Something is broken in Isola #1. Something is wrong. Queen Olwyn of Maar has been transformed, and only Rook—her steadfast soldier—remains by her side. They journey for Isola: a mythic place bridging two planes of existence—hope for cursed queens and slain gods alike. But a sprawling, dangerous world bars the way, and both hero and Highness face danger at every turn.
Co-writers Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl wisely throw us into the middle of their tale, and our experience is driven as much by the mystery of circumstance as it is the luscious land realized on the page by Kerschl and color artist MSassyK. By the end of this first issue, we’ve still yet to learn how Olwyn came to inhabit a tiger’s bones, or why Rook is her lone companion. We know little of Isola, and yet our hearts long for it, too—long for something beyond ourselves, something out-of-this-world to bring hope and healing. Our hearts long for Isola because in Rook and Olwyn we perceive whispers of our personal strivings, and the consummation of their journey will be the vicarious consummation of our own.
The nobility of loyalty
Until we reach that place, we walk in the company of two authentic, well-formed characters. Kerschl exalts Olwyn as much with his visual storytelling as Rook does with her submissive posture: the independence of the tiger-queen, and the authority of her glance—her sovereignty is clear long before Aditya Bidikar puts the word majesty on the soldier’s lips.
Rook freely gives allegiance to her queen, but their relationship seems a complex one. The soldier seeks forgiveness on several occasions for betraying an obstinate streak; she believes she knows better than her lady, and yet she cherishes her, and ultimately yields to Olwyn’s will. Rook does not need to remain by her queen’s side—all others have deserted—but she is bound by honor and affection. The nobility of loyalty is rarely exalted in this age, by word or by deed; and when we, in rare moments, behold it, it glows like a sapphire in the mud.
Sapphires in the mud
The world of Isola is stunning—a land simmering with danger, yet awash in the magical glow of hope. Kerschl and MSassyK achieve a staggering level of detail in their environments, and this—combined with simulated bokeh for distant landscape features—creates a cinematic realism and depth, even as character and creature aesthetics lean further into stylized abstraction. MSassyK's diversity of tones simulate natural light without devolving into the candied reflection-effects favored by many modern colorists; and so, while there is a great deal of busyness in her work, it calls no more attention to itself than does the color of a leaf or a fox or a mountain in the real world. By including subtle, low-contrast variation, and avoiding the sorts of photorealisms that can lead a comic book into an uncanny valley, MSassyK is able to bring Isola close enough to the known world for us to enter, without exposing the fantasy through inadequate emulation of those elements which are difficult to reproduce in this medium.
Bidikar's sound effects blend magnificently with their surroundings, and are often masked creatively—and skillfully—amidst the chaos of particular scenes. The design and type on the first page is likewise magnificent. Bidikar's stylistic choices for dialog balloons are bit perplexing, however; in a book with such clean lines and subtle coloring, his misshapen borders and somewhat weighty typeface seem to contradict what the other artists present. The reading experience ultimately suffers little from this, as the mind adapts quickly; but, in a book as harmonious as Isola, the volume of any dissonance seems more pronounced.
Yet, in the final analysis, Isola #1 shines brighter and looms larger than any one of its elements. The mind adapts because the heart persists—because the heart of Isola is the heart of us all. Something is broken, something is wrong, and we long for something outside of ourselves to make it whole—to make it right. Our hearts long for Isola, because our hearts cling to hope. And if there is hope for a tiger-queen and her loyal, obstinate champion, then perhaps there is hope for us all.