Comic Fodder

The War at Ellsmere

At the risk of getting flamed, I’m going to go ahead and stick my neck out there and admit that I was not as enchanted and enthralled by Faith Erin Hicks’ latest effort, “The War at Ellsmere”, as others on the interwebs. I am also the first to point out that I may not be the intended audience.

Conversely, my wife (who does read comics, but who has not made it a lifestyle) thoroughly enjoyed the comic, and yet we live in peace in our household.

The War at Ellsmere is a semi-magical-realism tale of escalating social conflict at an all-girls academy, presumably somewhere in Canada.

Here we go.

Frankly, I found the whole thing a big formulaic in the tradition of most teen-centric entertainment. New girl enters school who is not beautiful but is smart and hides behind a tough (read: wisecracking) demeanor to mask her insecurity. New girl somehow falls afoul of pretty, popular girl. A mostly petty war ensues, and new girl must find her limits of how far she will go before becoming something she does not want to be.

As per characters, there are essentially three of them, and the rest of the characters are mostly short-hand characters serving as plot devices. It would have been nice to have our protagonist, Jun(iper), not feel like a character we’ve seen in so much YA fiction. It's the modern stand-in for the YA fiction media consumer and/ or a stand-in the adult consumer of comics can project onto. Rather than geeky, wormy and awkward, Hicks casts Jun as unconventional, deeply smart, and misunderstood (we're all heroes in our own stories, after all). Our hero comes complete with a sidekick who Jun in no way could find threatening (and have mercy upon poor Cassie if Jun had found her anything but a sweet push-over).

Our third character is Emily, the girl who, rather than merely ignoring Jun, is, of course, obsessed with seeing Jun fail. Because she’s mean, I guess. I kept waiting for the big character reveal for Emily, in this somewhat understaffed story, but... nope. Emily has, of course, two sidekicks, a la Mean Girls, Heathers, et al.

I might note, the story in no way acknowledges the other 99.5% of the students in the school.

The plot hangs entirely on this irrational spotlight of dislike upon our hero, which, if we’re looking at stories as some expression of the writer's psyche, suggests that our protagonist/ writer would rather be harassed than merely ignored. Rather than merely pretending Jun doesn't exist or thoughtlessly just being a jerk to her, our villain spends a lot of time thinking about hero when... I mean, they sort of establish a conflict, but... I don't know if I ever bought that these two wouldn't just avoid one another for the rest of the year.

There's a lusciously drawn segment detailing background of the castle/ school which serves to ham-handedly foreshadow the deus ex machina conclusion of the story, and a denouement which is really hedging its bets for a sequel and thus provides no closure other than the grim possibility for a non-sequitur delivery of violence.

Add in a dead/ missing father for our hero, a major plot point hinging on an unlikely academic scenario and a plot device lifted from many-an-80’s movie… And the entire thing just feels terribly derivative of a lot of other little things, and a lot of Harry Potter v. Malfoy with an Ellen Page-ish stand-in for Harry. Unfortunately, Hicks’ diet of story inspiration seems to feel all too familiar (which should surprise few as her last effort involved that most overused of tropes: zombies*), and her audience will find that, at best, War at Ellsmere works as familiar comfort food.

I don’t want to bag on the comic too much. As I mentioned, I don't think I'm the audience. In addition, I felt this was intended to be Volume 1 of a series that, Potter-like, follows Jun and Cassie through each year at Ellsmere as they discover the wonders of the castle/ school, the unresolved issues are eventually resolved, and Jun establishes a persona that will allow her to be beloved but retain hip outsider status. But no matter what fate Emily, the Mean Girl, gets, it's tough to imagine it'll mean much more than when the jocks get theirs in Revenge of the Nerds.

Getting set-ups and exposition out of the way is always a tough, tough issue, as well as really finding a fresh voice for a character who, honestly, has a lot of potential should more volumes follow.

What I felt needed no improvement was Hicks’ artwork, page layout, etc… She’s a very talented artist, understands cartooning and, unlike most of comicdom, actually can draw different, highly expressive faces on her characters. I shudder to think what a disaster it would have been seeing her draw girls in uniforms with the same face over and over… Because she's pulled double duty, Hicks is able to really demonstrate understanding of how comics work as a visual medium to tell the story.

There's a huge amount of love in this project. I can’t help but believe that if Hicks is able to continue with her story about Jun, she has much more up her sleeve and could easily blow my predictions regarding her story out of the water.

But she will need to quit going to a well with which most consumers of pop culture are familiar. This isn't a crime. Every story is a pastiche to some other story. But not bringing anything new to the table is far more of a problem.

So who do I think the audience is for this comic? Before everyone jumps on me for only reading superhero comics... that's not true. But I suspect that this was intended far more for the audience of manga readers, who make a habit of reading melodramas taking place at schools with girls in plaid. I also suspect it will appeal to a wide range of other readers who relate a bit more to the melodrama of the story.

Anyway, that's my $0.02.

*I honestly can’t believe nobody has figured out how to use the zombie metaphor in some post-post-modern way to explore the relentless recycling of zombies in comics, video games and movies and the audience that will always buy whatever zombie-themed junk hits the shelf, theater, what-have-you


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com