Delilah Dawson (Writer), Ashley Woods (Artist, #1), Becca Farrow (Artist, #2-#4), Rebecca Nalty (Colorist), Jim Campbell (Letterer)
October 11, 2017
The first time I read Ladycastle, I felt confused. Firstly because I felt as if it was exactly the kind of story I should like. This otherwise standard fantasy tale throws out traditional gender roles within the first few pages by eliminating the menfolk of the castle via a dragon. By all accounts the interesting cast of women, made real by sharp wit and engaging dialogue, is enjoyable. Not only because each woman is able to let go of medieval expectations on their person and their identity, but also because they truly surprise the reader, and sometimes themselves, by growing as people.
Ladycastle began as a short series of four comic books that ran from January of last year until May. The present graphic novel is a collection of those comics, brought together as one tale. The graphic novel seems to fit the short story style of the fantasy tale better than the series format. The series was written by Delilah Dawson, a woman whose early writing experience is based in YA and fantasy novels. Over the years, she has grown into licensed comic and novel writing for pop culture phenomena.
Yet there was something that felt off when I read the graphic novel the first time, when it came out, last October. I wanted to like the collected series, but there was some element to it that felt unsettling, distracting. What was it? I wondered, and discussed it with other readers. I read reviews. I could not determine what it was. I had been looking forward to reading this series after consuming the author’s previous work in Adventure Time licensed comics.
It was clear in her Adventure Time comics work that Dawson understands the nature of some characters better than others. Yet here with original content creation, Dawson does a killer job with each central character. Every woman has a strength of her own, and also a weakness of her own. There are many uplifting conversations with King Merinor (a woman), who is particularly empowering to the women around her. One of my favorite montages involves Merinor showing each woman that they are truly more than what their husbands believed about them before the dragon came. It takes a village, working hard together in unprecedented circumstances to ward off monsters and grief alike, in Ladycastle.
Dawson’s work in Ladycastle also involves quick wit, funny remarks, and heartfelt conversations between characters. The story’s premise is one that any female fan of medieval fantasy settings will enjoy. So I read it a second time. And a third. As I began to read it again in January for the fourth time, I realized exactly what it was that disturbed me about the graphic novel: if it were not for Dawson’s dialogue and character development, Ladycastle would not be worthy of much praise. There are a couple of aesthetic issues with the artwork and the lettering that might give readers other than myself that unsettling feeling that something about the book does not feel quite right.
The way any information that is not dialogue is presented takes away from the story and distracts the reader. As a person brought up on poets like Lord Byron, Alexander Pope, or Edgar Allen Poe, I expect a certain amount of natural rhythm when I read certain things. If I know the song or verse from pop culture, then I impose my own memory onto the lyrics as I read them, and I am sure there are others who read music in comics in a similar fashion. Even having read Lord of the Rings and being familiar with Tolkien’s original songs has taught my mind to search within certain passages and find a rhythm. When the mind cannot find a rhythm to something that is supposed to be musical, it becomes a distraction from the story rather than an enhancement for the story.
I know I can’t really expect a comic book song to be that good but I was disappointed because I wanted it to be that good. I’m not sure if this is the fault of the letterer or the author, but it is off putting for the reader. For example, in the beginning Princess Aeve sings a song that seems to mimic the cadence of “Little Town” from Beauty and the Beast. But the way that the new lyrics are laid out line by line doesn’t make any sense for the way that the tune of Little Town moves.
The rhythm is off, and as a result most of the graphic novel’s songs that were “sung” were immense distractions from the flow of the tale. Perhaps this could have been fixed by the hand of a stronger letterer, or perhaps it would have been wise of the author to stick with her own strong dialogue and avoid music as exposition.
Another part of this graphic novel that felt unsettling were the facial expressions. By all accounts the dialogue is wonderfully expressive, there is clear sarcasm, doubt, fear, ecstasy, laughter, and snarky moments. For example, princesses Aeve and Gyneff interact as two sisters a decade apart in age would; they constantly shoot comments back and forth during heated debates. But the facial expressions do not convey the emotions that the writing does, and that disparity is troublesome.
An illustrated expressive face, in comics, art, or animation, can be quite simple, or it can be incredibly complex. Eyebrows are undoubtedly a key part of the illustrated facial expression. Farrow and Woods’ eyebrows are close to expressive, but the fact that they are usually missing the arched end of the brow that goes over the outside part of the eye, is visually disturbing. Most of the characters in Ladycastle look as if they have shaved off the outer edge of each eyebrow, and simply prefer to have half brows.
Expression is lost as a result of the lack of full eyebrows. The arched brow that could accompany Dawson’s ironic dialogue in so many places is missing, leaving the reader bereft of what could be the perfect badass female exchange during a battle. Everyone’s eyebrows are primarily carved in half, but not in every panel. It’s baffling. Maybe it is a medieval fashion trend I don’t know about.
Part of the visual issues may also be the result of the collected Ladycastle series being drawn by two artists: Ashley Woods drew issue #1, and Becca Farrow drew issues #2-#4. There is enough similarity and consistency in the artwork for it to seem as if the same illustrator drew every issue at first glance. Yet after reading, I noticed enough of a marked difference, so much that it bothered me in that strange way at the outset. Consistency is key when it comes to things like character portrayal, which means that the story begins to feel more believable when the reader gets to the issues drawn by Farrow (though the eyebrows are still just as disturbing).
Ladycastle had the potential to be a strong graphic novel. Yet there are a few things that might bother some readers when they approach the story. I personally felt distracted in an odd way at first, and it took me several re-reads to sort out my feelings on the book. The story of Merinor, Aeve, and the dozens of women at Ladycastle is one that not only surprised me throughout the plot but also kept me engaged the whole time. There are familiar mythologies incorporated, like werewolves, and there is humor, grief, fear, and love built into the tale with skill. Dawson clearly has a handle on how to write a solid story. Despite its aesthetic difficulties, I do recommend Ladycastle for anyone who enjoys one liners, badass ladies, and medieval fantasy settings full of mythological creatures. Just try to ignore the eyebrows.