Written by Jeff Davidson; Illustrated by Stephen R. Buell
Lost in the Dark Press
I’ve got a couple of special needs kids in my life. My niece was born prematurely and had other developmental complications that have put her behind other kids her age. My wife is a nanny for a teenaged girl with severe cerebral palsy, amongst other challenges. And like anyone else who’s been touched by children with special needs, I’ve felt both the challenges and the extreme blessings that come with knowing them. My niece, for example, never fails to make friends wherever she goes. She’s as exuberantly joyful as any five-year-old, but even more so considering the obstacles she has to overcome every day.
In the intro to Fragile Prophet, Jeff Davidson writes, “The purpose of this comic is neither to make light of nor shed light upon the intricacies of Fragile X syndrome.” It’s a good disclaimer, because it lowers your expectations right away. This isn’t a story about people dealing with a mental disability per se. It’s an urban fantasy/mystery that just so happens to feature a main character who has a mental disability. But it does that with sensitivity and class.
Jake is a young, autistic boy with precognitive powers. His older brother Esau is his only guardian and learns that in order to support themselves and allow them to stay together, they’ve got to capitalize on Jake’s talent. They begin in a circus sideshow, but Jake’s ability to predict the future is acute and profound enough that they soon become the stars of their own cable TV show. Esau has to evade accusations of exploitation while simultaneously protecting his brother from the threat of another former sideshow performer who’s irrationally jealous of Jake’s success. When Jake predicts his death on a national, Oprah-esque talk show (“Esau, why do you let me die?”), things get especially hairy.
What makes Fragile Prophet such a wonderful, little book is the humor and sweetness that defines Jake and Esau’s relationship. Davidson writes Jake as a genuinely funny, charming kid and you don’t question for a second why Esau and Jake’s other protectors want to watch out for him. He’s not just a likable character; you can’t help falling in love with him. Which makes the prediction of his death all the scarier.
Stephen R. Buell’s characters have oddly proportioned faces that are unsettling at first, but it’s a stylistic choice that works. It gives a macabre, ominous feel to the book, but Buell’s also a fine actor who makes you totally believe that these strange-featured folks are real people whom you want to see get out of the real jeopardy they’re in.
As I think about how his art and Davidson’s words made me feel, I can’t help but think that maybe they’ve come up with a new genre: the feel-good thriller. You can almost tangibly wrap yourself up in the relationships; all the while fearful that something horrible is about to pull them apart.