Leila del Duca (Writer), Kit Seaton (Artist), Taneka Stotts (Editor)
March 29, 2017
Ancient Egypt and all of its attendant art never fails to beguile the Western imagination. Unsurprisingly, it was the original reason that inspired me to pluck Leila del Duca and Kit Seaton’s Afar from a small bookstore shelf. It was also the main reason I stuck it out till the end once I started reading it. I initially imagined that if the talented webcomic writer Taneka Stotts (Full Circle) served as an editor on Afar, then perhaps it would be good. I learned—for the millionth time I should add—that good editing does not always guarantee good writing.
Afar follows fifteen-year old Boetema and her troublesome preteenish brother Inotu as they flee their home from the cyber-police in the post-industrial desert town they moved to shortly before their parents abandoned them to become salt shepherds. Inotu has the unfortunate luck of stumbling on a highly secretive conversation playing out between a corrupt merchant and liege right after saving his pet who he later christens “Monkey.” (I’ll leave readers to guess what type of animal Monkey is.) Boetema discovers the gift of astral-projecting to numerous planets and possessing the souls of its living inhabitants. After the reader follows Boetema’s scattered projections and her bland life on her planet, we see her astral project into a young girl called Lin in the midst of a power struggle on another unnamed planet. After provoking a member on the opposing side of the faction, Boetema gets Lin’s friend shot before she accidentally projects back to her own desert planet where she is consumed with guilt. The rest of the story follows Boetema and Inotu fleeing their desert town Omo (at least something has a name) to the lush town of Yopan (another name) to hide out and find work until they can reunite with their parents. In the midst of all this Boetema receives astral projecting training from a cosmic deity and is able to astral-project back to Lin’s planet where she falls in love and helps save the day.
Del Duca is no stranger to the comic world, having illustrated for successful endeavors like Shutter and The Wicked and the Divine. However, Afar sees her debut as a writer, and a compassionate reader should take her neophyte status into consideration and hope that she has learned from the experience. Astral projection is a passive power and provided an awkward skill to fit into a plot that seemed to creep along despite its many twists and turns. If it was coupled with a more active power, the blander moments in the novel (of which there were many) could have made for a more interesting time in her desert planet where Boetema is simply an ordinary girl navigating life. The dizzying number of planets she astral-projected in and out of felt fragmented and unnecessary. However, all these pitfalls can be forgiven when one considers that the art of comic writing is often a script where you cannot see its true effectiveness until you see the final illustrated project. In this sense, comic writers are at a disadvantage to every other kind of writer who has only their prose to work with and need not consider the alchemy of words and illustration. A major issue with the story was its lack of character development, something that could have happened over the space of three chapters easily. As much as I enjoy ancient Egyptian references, that angle of the story also served for senseless, exotification when one considers that the family’s racialized status was not engaged with.However, whatever the writing lacked in, Seaton’s prodigal art more than made up for it and served as the ultimate page-turner in the story. Though very different from the style of Monstress, her work had an emotive quality that drew me in the way Sana Takeda’s work has done before. The colors were vibrant, and the details were extraordinary. Perhaps it was seeing the ancient Egyptian art updated to have curvier edges and softer silhouettes as opposed to its traditional angular look, or maybe it was simply intriguing to see a beautiful protagonist of color on the page. Whatever it was, Seaton’s illustrations delivered well. It’s no surprise that she teaches at the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, and this certainly won’t be the last we’ll see of her art in the comic world.
Whatever discrepancies one may find with Afar, its compelling illustrations and ambitious premise is still a work some would enjoy, even if comic readership for some may be about viewing beautiful art.