Indie comics seem to revel in their outsider status. Unwieldy tales of social misanthropes without that accessible radioactive spider-bite, edgy depictions of taboos in all their Crumb-esque glory, and delicately spun interpersonal dramas all earn a special merit badge of obscurity in the scene. Mix that with a penchant for tales of squirmy social awkwardness and heroes more likely to loiter around their personal suburban hells than cascade from any skyscrapers and you have the beauty of indie comics: we get stories no advertising firm would ever touch. We get stories that would never sell Pepsi or land a theme song on Xtina's latest album. And thank goodness for that.
Even more fortuitous for the content-hungry is the arrival of Rose and Isabel, a new two-part title from Pixar artist Ted Mathot and Emeryville's E-Ville Press. Rose and Isabel takes up familiar comic book terrain with the Amazonian warrior, and adds a welcome twist with an American Civil War setting, compelling character dynamics, and a strong emotional core. Two sisters, bolstered by a mysterious magical gift, set off to find their three brothers -- soldiers missing somewhere amongst the grisly battlefields of a war-torn countryside. And what's not to like about any comic that comes with a bibliography?
Mathot's drawings are efficient and gripping. He renders with a rough, sketchy touch and deftly condenses messy emotion into raw facial expressions and nuanced gestures. Though the book is black and white, characters and settings feel absorbing and fully realized. Rose and Isabel, themselves, are so life-like across the pages that it's easy to lose yourself completely in their saga. In every panel, we're secure in the hands of an ace, and it is satisfying to sit back and let Mathot guide us through his finely-tuned visual world.
That it is two young heroines who take the reins in that world is, admittedly, pretty exciting just at face value. Nice moments come when the child Rose defends her older male sibling from local bullies -- wielding a literal big stick in pigtails and petticoats. That said, I found it hard not to wince at a few of the clumsier stabs at capturing female perspective, such as the all-powerful "women's bond" that conveniently, transparently surfaces between Yankee Isabel and a Confederate woman, or the extensive prologue detailing Amazonian legend in a labored attempt to establish that, gee whiz, women can fight. It is difficult for any writer to portray the opposite sex, let alone within the confines of panels and word bubbles, but the best I've seen still remains Daniel Clowes's eerily accurate Enid and Rebecca in Ghost World.
Yes, insert "comics is a male-dominated field" observation here, but the main reason these gender portrayal shortcomings are so glaring is that the characterization in Rose and Isabel is otherwise so tender and absorbing. Above gripes aside, Mathot did imbue his antebellum Amazons with a realistic back-story that explores the duo's conflicted relationship with their martial skills, and both sisters have a unique and affecting take.
Since Mathot's story is so refreshing for its scope, historical research, and originality, I left the books wishing for more. Rose and Isabel seems like its struggling to be a complex character-driven story on the one hand, while being a glossy, high-voltage slash-and-dash action comic on the other -Â— complete with stylish fighting scenes and an off-into-the-sunset resolution. The compellingly layered premise of the story fizzles somewhat against the lightning-fast pacing, and the promising character depth gets lost in the hasty ending and uneven narration. Mathot clearly took his time crafting these characters (he includes fascinating preliminary sketches) and all the elements for an airtight narrative arc are in place, but frustratingly underplayed.
Rose and Isabel is a great comic book, with an ambitious scope that sets a high bar for inventiveness and quality production. Still, I couldn't help but daydream about spending more time with Mathot's creations to fully lavish in their quirks, stunning visual presence and complexities in what would almost certainly make a fantastic movie or graphic novel.