I don’t mean that this is the Platonic ideal of a comic book, or that this is one you’ll find on the shelves in the library in heaven, or that it completely changed my life, or that if Hicks asked me to join a new cult she was thinking of starting up (Unless this theoretical cult of hers has health insurance).
But the story—on the plot, character and narrative level—is absolutely perfect, with each piece of the work fitting together so that they all work in unison; no words or images are wasted. Some of this perfection is somewhat transparent, as when a minor element from earlier in the story becomes important later on, so perhaps its not perfectly perfect, but as I closed the book and first started to return to the real world I was reading it in after the time spent in the one Hicks created, the first thing that impressed itself upon me was that this was a carefully created work by someone who knows the medium so well she can manipulate it effortlessly to tell the story she wants to tell.
But enough vagaries and appreciation of Hicks’ mastery of mechanics, what is this story Hicks is telling?
Jun is about to start school at Ellsmere Academy, a preppy all-girl boarding school with blazers, plaid skirts and the sort of curriculum that will help her get into a good college. Unlike the rest of the well to do students there, she’s only allowed to attend because she’s there on a scholarship.
That sets her apart from the crowd, as does the fact that she’s willing and able to stand up to the mean girl queen bee Emily and her henchgirls. Jun and Emily constitute the two parties that put the “War” in the title, although there’s a little more to the story then teen girls doing social battle with one another: There’s a legend about Ellsmere and the mythical creature said to live in the woods beyond it, one that intersects with the main story near the climax in an incredibly satisfying way.
If you’re unfamiliar with Hicks’ artwork from her debut graphic novel Zombies Calling or her web comics, she seems to share a rather similar design aesthetic to fellow Canadian Bryan Lee O’Malley and Hope Larson (although, as Larson points out in the introduction she wrote for War at, Hicks has been drawing twice as long as her and was actually a big influence on her, so there’s probably more Hicks in Larson than Larson in Hicks).
With O’Malley she shares the huge-eyed, round-faced, thick-outlined, flattened-out look that is more common among artists who grew up as anime and manga were making ever wider inroads into North America, artists who internalized rather than imitated Japanese pop art to the point that it doesn’t look Japanese, but it looks descended from it. And with Larson she shares a tremendous ability of character design, with the various players all being highly individualized and clearly distinct from one another, and able to emote like good actors, despite the relative (perhaps deceptive) simplicity of the art.
Great art and a practically perfect story, as always, add up to a pretty great comic that I had a ton of fun reading, and yet that’s not the only reason I’m so excited about the book. It’s also a great example of an original graphic novel doing what the booming Young Adult fiction genre of publishing does so well, and it’s always nice to find a new comic to recommend to all my friends who dig YA novels.
I would honestly be quite surprised if I didn’t see this on a lot of library shelves in the near future.
For a short preview of War at Ellsmere, check out SLG’s site. For more on Faith Erin Hicks, check out her website, where you can read her completed webcomic Demonology 101, a ton of shorter comics and see sketches of everything from X-People to videogame characters to the cast of Pushing Daisies.