Sera and the Royal Stars #1: It’s Complicated

A woman floats in profile, her clothes and scarves floating around her

Sera and the Royal Stars #1

Raúl Angulo (colorist), Jim Campbell (letterer), Audrey Mok (artist), Jon Tsuei (writer)
Vault Comics
July 17, 2019

Sera and the Royal Stars gives me super complicated feelings! I’m not usually so bombastic when I start a review, but it does! It’s the story of a princess’ quest in ancient Parsa (what you might know as Persia) to save her family and her people against a kind of unclear but apocalyptic threat. I’ll say unequivocally that I liked the first issue; Sera is portrayed as a fighter, a tactician, and a compassionate soul, someone who cares about those around her. The book is quick to get me on her side, and I enjoy that. This is going to be a spoiler-heavy review, but for specific reasons I want to get into some very specific things and their context. This starts with her design, which may feel a little … familiar.

On the left, Aya from Assassin’s Creed: Origins, on the right, Ratonhnhaké:ton from Assassin’s Creed III

For better or worse, the design here reminds me of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Those games started with Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, a member of the Levantine Assassins, so-named for its sphere of influence; the Levant. The Levant is a region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing the modern day countries of Palestine, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Cyprus, and Lebanon, along with some of Turkey. In other words, it was the Western coast of what was ancient Persia. I confess, I’m not up on my history enough to be aware of the accuracy of the outfit temporally; the Persian Empire existed, as you can see, around 500 B.C. whilst the first Assassin’s Creed game was set around the mid-1200s A.D. Is this design work actually accurate? I don’t know, and that’s part of what gives me such complicated feelings about this comic!

A map of the Persian Empire throughout its history; note the location of Syria and Palestine for an idea of the general region of the Levant.

Mid-battle, Sera is given a vision by the god Mitra, where she discovers that, like her mother before her, she must attempt to locate the Royal Stars in order to save the kingdom. To do this, she must leave the battlefield, where her family is at war with an army led by her uncle, Shaheen. Shaheen’s stated goals are just enough; with the empire facing drought and starvation, he claims that he wants to do right by his people. However, he also does this while wearing all black and smiling in the most sinister of fashions, so make of that what you will. He even does the Evil Hand Clutch!

At any rate, Sera, who has been ignoring her visions, is finally hit with one in the middle of the night. This is the second time this book has reminded me of Assassin’s Creed. In that franchise, characters who are thought of as gods, Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva, appear before humans in grand, golden displays, and, well, here’s how Mitra shows up to Sera.

To the left, Juno and Minerva from the Assassin’s Creed series, to the right, Mitra visiting Sera.

Video games aren’t the only thing this comic puts me in mind of, though. In fact, beyond these two specific things, there’s really no resemblance at all! What it does remind me of (because I apparently cannot stop looking at the world in this way) is the Chinese tale Journey To The West, wherein a monk must make a pilgrimage, collecting a cohort of anthropomorphic deities along the way, the most famous of the bunch being Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. In Sera and the Royal Stars, the first companion Sera must locate on her quest is known simply as “The Bull,” but we find that he’s a creature in much the same vein; built much like a man, but otherworldly in style and design, glowing and floating, with horns and purple skin. The story doesn’t reveal much about him at this point; between the tasking of Sera’s quest and her location of him, the first issue is chock full.

So here’s the thing. I’m white. I was born and raised in America. I don’t know a thing about Ancient Persia beyond the cursory research I’ve done here. I’ve done that research in an attempt to familiarize myself with the subject, but the truth is I shouldn’t be the one talking about this comic, both for this reason and for the fact of the book’s creation. I can review it as a comic book, but I’m not qualified to speak on what it specifically represents historically. The thing that sticks with me on that front is that the book is primarily the product of two Asian voices; Jon Tsuei and Audrey Mok specifically. The colorist, Raul Angulo, is based in Costa Rica. Jim Campbell, the letterer, is in the UK.

It’s great that the team is primarily people of color, and even better that two of those individuals are specifically of Asian descent. However, Asia is a very big continent! The Persian Empire at its height covered a significant portion of West Asia, an area neighboring but distinct from India, China, North and South Korea, or Japan. The US tends to call it the Middle East, but that itself is a very Eurocentric reference; from the perspective of Europe and the Americas on a globe, it’s East, but not as East as those earlier-mentioned countries. It’s also an area that is culturally distinct from East Asia, and while I won’t claim that Tseui and Mok can’t or shouldn’t base a story there, I would feel more comfortable if someone with that specific cultural background were on the creative team. The end result is a situation like this: a book about Persia that is both created and reviewed by people with no ties to the region.

So, all of that said, do I like the book? Yeah, I kinda do! Sera seems like a fun, interesting character, and I like the conceit of gathering together these mythical powers. It’s one that persists in fiction because when it’s done well it really can make for a fun adventure story, and from what I can see here, the creative team has a steady, brisk pace laid out to help that along. Honestly I’ll probably continue to keep up on this series, because I want to see where it goes. There’s just that one thing hanging over it: It’s a well-written opening chapter to a story, and Mok’s art is beautiful, but … well, it’s no Habibi, but neither does it have the benefit of authentic voice. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re considering giving it a look.

Nola Pfau

Nola Pfau

Nola is a bad influence. She can be found on twitter at @nolapfau, where she's usually making bad (really, absolutely terrible) jokes and occasionally sharing adorable pictures of her dog.