When I was living in Champaign, Illinois, there was a mini-comic that was written, drawn, and published by a local creator, Layla Lawlor. It was called Raven's Children, and to this day it is still one of my favorite mini-comics series. I had always wanted to meet her, if for no other reason than to just say thanks for putting out a mini-comic that is consistently more entertaining than much of what I get from the big publishing houses.
Normally you wouldn't think it terribly odd that we hadn't met; after all, creators are busy and they don't often afford much time to the outside world, and Champaign/Urbana is a pretty big town. There were more than a few Karmic forces at work though. We lived in the same town. We frequented the same two comics stores, (actually, there's only two) so by default we knew a lot of the same people. To top it all off, I'm a loudmouth who regularly pushed her work on unsuspecting customers with all the aplomb of a sugar-buzzing used car salesman, so I tend to be hard to miss.
It took me two years of pimping her work online and around town before we finally ran across each other in G-Mart (one of the local comics stores.) I came away from that meeting with a newfound respect for anyone who chooses to work in that field.
The people who create mini-comics are amazing, especially those devoted enough to put them out on a regular basis. They usually are their own artists, writers, publishers, PR departments, etc. Unfortunately, much of the mini-comics catalog appears amateurish at best, and just unreadable at worst. Those of us who love the format have a tendency to excuse the sloppy artwork and rushed storytelling. There's a bit of a punk rock esthetic at work here, and we like it that way. It's a sense that anyone with time, inclination, and guts can make their own comic.
Every once in a while though, someone puts a voice to paper that rises above the chattering. A creator will spin silk out of rough-hewn cloth, and we as readers are left with a series equal to or better than anything published by a large company. Every so often a creator will show us unequivocally that it is always a bad idea to judge a book by its cover. Layla Marie Lawlor does this with Raven's Children.
The owner of my favorite comics shop, Other Realm, first pointed out to me that Layla had collected the first five issues of her ongoing mini-comic into a graphic novel. Even though I'd been following her work since the first issue of the Raven's Children mini, I bought the book anyway. The shop owner knew I was a sucker for a starving artist (still am) and that I'll always go out of my way to support an independent comics creator. Although I'm quite sure he thought it would distract me from the fact that he had next to nothing in the way of independent comics that week. I figured that at the least, I'd get to re-read Raven's Children without having to crack into my somewhat dilapidated and love-worn minis. What I got when I opened up this shiny new graphic novel was something unexpected, and absolutely wonderful.
The story is really what has always set Raven's Children above the rest of the mini-comics pack. It's a sprawling, historical epic with occasional bits of fantasy and science fiction thrown in for good measure. Inspired by the Inuit Tribes of Alaska and Northern Canada, Layla has meticulously crafted a handful of dynamic societies and set them at odds with each other in an ongoing clash over territory and cultural differences.
The plot of Shadow of the Snow Fox evolves from a summit meeting between the Raven's Children clan and the Tolshay Kahn Empire. The meeting goes horribly awry when the sole translator, Jained, brings his personal politics and somewhat self-serving agenda into play, causing the Raven's Children to attack a far superior force. This results in a slaughter for the clan, which the Tolshay Kahn seem to write off as a failed diplomatic attempt, and Jained gets away with it. There's more. The story is stacked with nuance and layers of meaning. It would take me a novella to explain what Layla masterfully distills into 144 pages.
Raven's Children is as grand and sweeping as Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels. Like much of McCaffrey's work, Layla uses science fiction and fantasy elements as backdrop, but the important elements of the story are the characters. She's figured out how to make fully realized people from different and sometimes diametrically opposed cultures come to life by merely setting pen to paper. She's packed the story so densely with real characters that you almost don't realize that the whole story takes place on another planet. From Deneko, the cruel and stalwart war-chief of the Raven's Children tribe, to Jained the strange telepathic translator for the invading Tolshay Kahn Empire, to Ronin Kheheli, the reluctant provincial governor of the Tolshay Kahn, and Leesansut the impossibly strong slave woman indentured to the Raven's children tribe, Layla's characters crackle with energy and life.
The real stunner of the graphic novel though, was how well Layla's artwork represented. I had always dismissed Layla's artistic style as that of someone still learning her craft. She is still learning, just like any good artist should be. This is evident, as she gets better with each successive issue. But to my mind, her art was always decent, just not my cup of tea. However, her pen and ink renders translate much better when printed on 8 ½" x 11" glossy paper with real printing values. She puts across much crisper and cleaner line work when she's printing with something other than whatever Kinko's has on hand. The higher printing quality also shows off her wonderful use of the black and white format. Layla's characters and backgrounds achieve a sense of detail and fluidity that I've rarely noticed in her minis. Obviously, she's a lot more accomplished than I ever gave her credit for.
Layla has taken full advantage of the graphic novel format by including a bunch of extras. She gives us a covers gallery, an index of the major characters with a family tree, and a big section of footnotes (a la Carla Speed McNeil's Finder). More importantly, she has given us a tale packed to the hilt with heroes, villains, gods, monsters, love, life, and death, all wrapped up in a pretty bow of masterful dramatic tension. Layla's an emerging artist who will only produce greater works as time goes on. As it is, she's damn good now, and well worth reading.Powered by Sidelines