What is a children’s story? Is it a watered-down view of the world, told through watered-down prose? Does it soften the edges of reality in an attempt to preserve the innocence of the young? Jason Brubaker may not have set out to write a children’s story, but I would contend that he has; and, in the pedigree of Tolkien and Lewis before him, he has crafted a story that would expand young minds rather than fence them in—a story born of the truth that we cannot survive a dangerous world by hiding it from our sight. So open your eyes, and join me as I take a look at a remarkable book for all ages: Sithrah, Book One: Kingdom of the Air.
Truth in fantasy
Here’s the book’s description from Amazon:
Nirvana Page wanted to see the world. Traveling by private seaplane with her father on their annual vacation, together they explore exotic places and discover remarkable wildlife, and even if it’s only for a few days, she gets everything a seven-year-old girl could hope for. That is, until a mysterious force crashes their plane, separating Nirvana from her dad, and stranding her in a strange and unfamiliar land. It’s there she encounters SITHRAH―a mysterious being who could hold the key to finding her father―and begins a grand and perilous adventure that will bring her to the end of the world and beyond! SITHRAH is an all-ages book embracing a mixture of comic art and prose in a way that has never been done before.
In many ways, Brubaker’s prosey interjections remind me of Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire’s excellent A.D., but I consider Sithrah a more harmonious blend of storytelling methods. That’s not a ding on Snyder and Lemire, but an observation of technique. Whereas A.D.’s prose signals shifts in time or perspective, Sithrah’s more seamlessly weaves in and out. Sithrah is therefore more real-time and immersive, because neither the text nor the artwork interrupt the flow of things, even in flashback.
The text is wonderfully written. Dialogue feels quite natural, and the narration has character without excessive ornamentation. The inscription at the beginning of the book makes me think that Brubaker’s tale is allegory; but the writing never presses the issue very hard. The world of comics is already overpopulated with ham-fisted literary activism, so I really appreciate the restraint. My favorite stories do not get straight to the point, but instead arrive by a more circuitous route. Life is like that, too—truth in nature has deeper roots than abstract philosophy cooked up in an armchair. And even if you ultimately reject the truth offered, you will have at least considered its demonstrable implications and not rejected it in ignorance. The best stories are like this, too, I think. They make it past the outer wall of our biases and force us to consider before we reject. They’re kind of like timeshare seminars, only you don’t feel like you’ve wasted four hours once they’re over.
Nirvana—called “Vonna” by her father—rings very true to me. She’s a young child, and she thinks she knows better than everyone. When her youthful arrogance gets her in trouble, she covers to save her pride. Isn’t this like the children you know? Isn’t this like all of us? Historically, adults have viewed children as incapable of understanding the way things work, but then indiscriminately grant responsibility to grown people because they have crossed an arbitrary age threshold. As our world has crept into the Age of Autonomy, we have only doubled down on this ridiculous understanding of things. Instead of recognizing that young and old alike often have no idea what is best for them, our society has increasingly granted more and more autonomy to the young, as though the problem all along was a lack of equality between youth and age.
All of that is a long path back to one of the things that I love best about Sithrah: Brubaker gives each character flaws becoming of their ages, but he does so in such a way that preserves their dignity—a way that exalts neither youth nor age. Vonna’s arrogance is childish, but she is not one-dimensional and ridiculous. Her father’s arrogance feels like the necessary-for-survival, external confidence of a single dad (or any dad, really) trying to keep the world from ripping apart. Each of them has already paid the price for his or her pride, and each of them pays again here in Kingdom of the Air.
Truth made vibrant
This book is gorgeous. I’m a huge fan of artists like Patrick Gleason and Sean Murphy, because I feel like they use the freedom of the medium to communicate more clearly than realistic drawings might. They know what to exaggerate or minimize to convey what they want to get across. What you get in the end is a clearer look at the truth through an abstraction. In concept, it seems like that shouldn’t make sense, but it does.
Brubaker has a similar aesthetic, though his characters are more abstract and playful to begin with. But when someone’s eyes get big, they get bigger than they would in real life. When Vonna lays, dazed and confused, on the ground, her face takes on a little extra girth and loses definition. When face-to-face with Sithrah for the first time, her confusion is clear as day in the lamp-eyed anime-face given her by Brubaker.
The environments in Sithrah bounce between gorgeous, lush establishing shots, and imaginative, slightly overlit close quarters. There’s a beautiful two-page spread in which you can’t quite tell whether or not you’re looking at a blood-stained garment or something else until you—and Vonna—take a step back and get a more complete picture.
But now I’m getting into function, and Brubaker’s layouts for this book are a spectacular balance of liberty and restraint. On one page, Vonna has a conversation with an off-panel character. The actual panels look fairly traditional, covering half of the page. The other half alternates between traditional dialogue balloons coming from Vonna, and blocks of book-text for the other character. It’s a clever technique, but more than that, it makes it very easy to read the conversation without having to process the presence or lack of balloon tails. The balloons are clearly Vonna, and the blocks are clearly the other party. Your brain does the work once, and then it just knows.
Another layout pattern I particularly enjoy is Brubaker’s tendency to go full two-page for many of his establishing shots. When Vonna and her dad ascend in their plane, we’re treated to this stunning shot of the tiny plane amidst green, hazy mountains and forest. When Vonna takes shelter from a storm under a bridge, the two pages are awash in black, with a small shock of light springing from a bolt of lightning, giving some color to the sky, texture to the rain, and shape to the bridge and terrain. It’s a beautiful spread out-of-context, but it’s also incredibly effective at illustrating the fear and loneliness of Vonna’s plight.
Excellent lettering, okay letters
As I hinted above, Brubaker’s placement of balloons and block text is first-rate. I like the look of his balloons, and he appears to have a good sense of how much whitespace is appropriate for easy reading. Brubaker also makes his own fonts, and uses them here, and I’m a little less impressed with how he uses them. That’s not to say that I think they’re bad—they look nice enough. But he frequently enlarges, tilts, and skews them for effect in dialogue, and I’m not sure whether I like or dislike it. He achieves his desired function in these cases, but I wonder if he could have done so without such extreme exaggerations. After a few times, it feels a little bit gimmicky, and any charm that I might have felt is gone by the end of the book. None of that prevents me from enjoying the whole package, but I think it’s still a worthwhile observation.
An intriguing fantasy with outstanding artwork, believable characters, and great dialogue, Sithrah’s first book is as good a debut as I could ask for. Jason Brubaker is doing his own thing, and doing it with excellence. Buy Kingdom of the Air from Jason’s online store, or read it FREE in installments on Line Webtoon.