Thieves & Kings,
Vol. I: The Red Book

Mark Oakley, writer & artist
(Ibox, 1996)

The city of Oceansend is in trouble, although most people don't know it. The unpopular but noble Princess Katara has gone missing, King Rillion is in a coma, and the brutal but well-liked Prince Kangar is increasing his control on the city streets. A ship pulling into the harbor carries a young thief named Rubel, who is also in trouble, though he doesn't yet know it. His guardian has recently died, and all the friends he knew in his hometown have moved away. There's also the Shadow Woman, who may possibly be wanting to steal his soul. Or perhaps not.

And that's not even the entire first issue.

Thieves & Kings is a comic book, but that's only because people don't recognize an illuminated manuscript when they see one. Instead of sticking to the usual panel/dialogue balloon format that's almost universal in comic books, Mark Oakley tells much of the story as large blocks of text that provide more world background and internal dialogue than the traditional form could allow. These aren't just pages of a novel, placed into a comic book. Each block of text is surrounded by illustrations, sometimes enhancing the story being narrated, sometimes telling a completely different tale of their own. I've seen other creators use this technique occasionally, but none with as much fluency.

This isn't to say that there's no use of the usual panel/dialogue form. The dialogue itself is wonderful, with each character having their own separate voice. No one but Rubel could spout his adventurer dialogue with a straight face, or switch so quickly between grand speeches and adolescent incoherence. The Shadow Lady reads as dark and dangerous without crossing the thin line into goth and hokey. When the story itself threatens to become too serious and mythic, the people who live in it can be counted on to inject a note of realism and humor without resorting to tiresome comic relief.

Oakley's character art is deceptively simple. Most of the people have only slightly more substance than stick figures, but those spindly limbs and simplified faces allow for exaggerated body language and highly readable expressions that fit the emotions of Rubel's world better than a more rendered style. The fine detail edited out of the characters is lavished on the backgrounds, making the world seem doubly solid against these magical children. Not a roof shingle or window pane is missing, not a leaf overlooked. A nice side effect of this is that when truly massive, heavily rendered characters like the Iron Guard appear, they look like moving landscape, and are doubly imposing. All this in truly glorious black and white that uses shading like a good filmmaker uses lighting.

The world itself is one of those rare places where magic is as common and integral to life as gravity, but still special and precious. The citizens of Oceansend are patrolled by seemingly bodiless hulks of armor, but they still take the time to stop and admire an imp. Conversely, the Sleeping Wood may have woken up several hundred years ago and crushed the human settlements that had built up in it, but that's no reason for everyone to go invoking the Wood every breath, or give a tour guide commentary on it. Titles really mean something for the person bearing them, from simple ones like Grocer to grand careers like Thief, and even the most background of characters clearly has a story, even if we don't have time to hear it.

Thieves & Kings has been running for years now, and isn't the sort of comic that should be joined mid-story. Happily, Mark Oakley keeps up a wonderful website where you can order the handy trade paperbacks and see nifty little extras like comic strips and past editorials. If you've managed to miss seeing Thieves & Kings so far, pay it a visit and pick up a ticket to Oceansend.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 14 September 2002

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