My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
(Although…I’m wavering. It was really good.)
This comes pretty close to being an illustrated novel. Yes, there are dialogue balloons and the occasional onomatopoeia , but they’re solidly dominated by the narration + fantastic artwork.
Speaking of the artwork: it’s not just about the watercolor, although that’s certainly the majority, and used to all its strengths: dripping, splotches, splashes, those wonderful crusty edges you get when you layer in a little more paint and turn the brush the right way. There are occasional panels that aren’t like this—where the ink takes over—always to a particular effect, for instance to show alienation, or a dramatic moment, and it’s interesting how smooth the transition between the dreamier watercolors and these more concrete moments are (except for the one place where it’s deliberately abrupt). Of course, it does still have panels, and there’s still a fair bit of ink where characters need to be outlined, scenes need to be set, all that good stuff. I did enjoy the juxtaposition of a realistic style with some of the more outlandishly caricatured characters.
As for the story, if you have an issue with deus ex machina then this may not be the best read for you. It’s frequently the point, said straight out at the beginning. ‘Whim.’
It’s very literature-centric, too. Every chapter opens with an excerpt from some famous work, and the format is about as close to epistolary as I’ve seen anything illustrated get (hence all the narration). I think I missed a number of literary allusions, considering how many seemed familiar. The narrator, too, whom we see as he’s telling the story from years and years in the future, resembles a number of famous writers. Darwin jumped first to mind, but when you’ve got a puffy white beard to work off, there’s a lot of options.
Thematically, I think you could tease out more complexity if you went looking for it, but while there is plenty of goings-on, they’re not quite saying something we’ve never heard before. There is a lot about the ‘flower child’ stuff going on in the ’60s (turns out Moonshadow is the narrator’s name, for one), and with that of course war, but by and large this story seemed to be about caprice, and adventures, and growing up. You could call it a bildungsroman, but I think that’s too limited.
Because there isn’t a huge need for thematic development here. It’s a fun read with a ton of twists and turns. The author/illustrator could have set it up to be entirely lyric—Moonshadow is terribly poetic when describing pretty much everything in his life—but the panels are often at odds with the gravitas he’s imparting to them. There’s a strong sense of absurdity (whim, even), and trying to make this read completely serious would do it an injustice.
The edition I picked up includes both the original, as well as the ‘Farewell to Moonshadow,’ which fills in the gaps from when the original ends to where he’s writing his story down. It’s straight-up an illustrated story, with a full page of text with a full page of imagery. I would recommend waiting a couple of days to finish that section. Once you get there, I imagine you’ll see why.