Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Orphan King’ volume 1

“Can you tell me where my country lies? said the unifaun to his true love’s eyes”

As you might know by now, I’m a big fan of A Wave Blue World, the publishing concern of Tyler Chin-Tanner (who also wrote The Orphan King) and Wendy Chin-Tanner (who edited the script). Tyler is an excellent dude – I’ve met him a few times at the Emerald City Comic-Con when he lived in Portland, before he decamped to become a hipster in Brooklyn – and while I’ve never met Wendy, I’m friends with her on Facebook and she seems like a superb person. More than that, their business generally puts out very good comics, which is always nice. The Orphan King, of which this is only the first volume, blends the Arthurian mythos with the Robin Hood mythos, and we get a rousing adventure story. James Boyle drew this, with Andrew Dalhouse coloring it and Pete Carlsson lettering it. Let’s have a look!

Chin-Tanner gives us the classic “young man returning to his homeland” opening, as Kaidan, a prince who has not been in his country for a few years, arrives on its shores. We get some flashbacks to show how he left, but then he reaches his castle and finds it destroyed and his family gone. Oh dear. In the flashbacks, we learn that his father, the king, sent him to live with his aunt, the king’s sister-in-law, who lives on an island where only women live, and where Kaidan can learn … well, it’s unclear in this volume what he learns – we do get a bit of his time on the island, but we just get a very vague indication of what his aunt is teaching him. Presumably, in later volumes we’ll find out more about his life on the island and why he returns. But in this volume, Kaidan wants to find out why his father’s kingdom collapsed. He’s an outlaw, given that he’s the son of the king, and the soldiers of the conquering armies are looking for him and generally being dicks to the populace. Kaidan falls in with a group of thieves led by a dude who certainly acts like Robin Hood (Chin-Tanner makes a joke about what he calls himself late in the book) and is accompanied by people who certainly remind us of Marian and Little John, and Kaidan fights with them against the soldiers but decides he needs to find his family, so he heads off. But that adventure is for volume 2!

The actual plot of the story isn’t all that impressive, because it’s clear Chin-Tanner is setting up an epic, so he needs to do that. Kaidan falls in with these “rebels,” who seem to want to sell him to the bad guys, but we never really believe that, and it turns out it’s an elaborate con just to steal some gold to distribute to the less fortunate peasants. Similarly, we get only a taste of what Kaidan’s aunt teaches him on the island – she’s teaching him strategy and tactics, sure, but also how to be a good king, but there’s nothing too in-depth. Kaidan’s father is not a good man, even if he might be a good king, and so we get a nice contrast between the way he runs things and the way Kaidan might, if he were to become king. The “bad guys” are just thugs in this volume, with the rulers not seen and their perfidy only hinted at. It’s clear this is a fantasy world – the ferryman who brings Kaidan back isn’t quite human, and there are some fantastical creatures lurking in the woods – but that’s not front and center in this volume, either, which sticks to more mundane things like betrayals and conquest and poverty. It’s definitely not as good as it could be, simply because Chin-Tanner is playing the long game, but it’s still an entertaining comic. Chin-Tanner does a nice job establishing the characters without overburdening us with exposition – the characters’ personalities come out through their actions, which is a good way to go about it. Even someone like Kaidan’s father, who isn’t in the book that much, is revealed through dialogue as a fairly cruel man, but his personality is still ambiguous enough that it’s clear he has more depth that we haven’t seen yet. Chin-Tanner keeps the tone relatively light, even though Kaidan is returning to a land somewhat ruined by war, and that allows the adventurous nature of the plot to carry us along rather than bogging us down. It’s probable that the book will become darker as Kaidan learns more about what happened during his absence, but the tone in this book is a good way to bring us into the story and relate to the characters, so when (or if) it does become darker, we’re already invested in the characters. So as a standalone story, this is slightly weak, but as the first volume of a longer epic, it does a good job.

Boyle’s art is unspectacular but works well regardless. He gives us clear, clean characters who … well, it’s hard to describe, but they look like they should. Kaidan, for instance, ought to be a fresh-faced, good-looking young man, with better hygiene than the peasants. The peasants, like most depictions of medieval peasants in popular culture, aren’t as bad off as they probably would be – they have all their teeth and no skin problems, in other words – but they look “rougher” than Kaidan does. The thuggish soldiers are blockier and more scuffed than the “good guys” in the story – Boyle does a nice job contrasting them to Kaidan, who has fought but only in mock battles, while these soldiers have been through wars. Kaidan’s world is sufficiently medieval – it’s mostly rural, and the one town feels small, although the buildings look better constructed than most medieval buildings were – and Boyle does nice work with this sense of isolation that probably existed back in those days, when the actual human population was far less than it is today. Kaidan moves across vast, empty meadows and deserted forests, with even his father’s castle sitting in a fairly isolated location. We do get a nice hint of the splendor of the castle from when Kaidan lived there before he left, and Boyle does a good job showing that luxury did exist in medieval times, even if it was rare and surrounded by squalor. It’s good art, not great art, but it helps tell the story, and that’s the most important thing.

I’m looking forward to the subsequent volumes of this story, because putting the Arthur legend and the Robin Hood legend together is not a bad idea at all, and making them not exactly Arthur and not exactly Robin Hood allows Chin-Tanner to do his own thing with the story while still staying within the general framework. Kaidan is an interesting character because it’s clear he’s a decent dude but still doesn’t quite know how to be a good king, and his outlaw status gives the book a nice element of danger. It’s a nice-looking comic with a lot of interesting possibilities, so let’s hope we get more volumes soon!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

One comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.