I’m a big fan of Czap Books, especially two of their earlier publications – Laura Knetzger’s sweet, slice-of-life series Bug Boys, and Jessi Zabarsky’s emotional, warm fantasy Witchlight. I’ve written about both comics before, but since those initial pieces both books were picked up by Random House Graphic and released to a wider audience. I was excited for these stories to show up on my library’s shelves, and checked out both to see how, or if, they’d changed. Both books have beautiful, brand new colors – Witchlight’s were done by Geov Chouteau and Bug Boys’ by Lyle Lynde – that take these comics to a whole new level.
Jessi Zabarsky (Writer and Artist)
Geov Chouteau (Colors)
Random House Graphic
Witchlight was one of my top books of 2016, and my descriptions of Lelek as a “tough young witch” and Sanja as “sweet, idealistic but strong” still feel just right. In a moment of desperation, Lelek kidnaps Sanja and takes her away from her stifled place in her hometown – but quickly turns from kidnapper to student when she petitions Sanja for fighting lessons. Sanja accepts, and the pair soon grow interested in each other’s pasts, motivations, and the possibility of a loving relationship.
Chouteau’s colors first hit me hard during Sanja’s fire lit talk with Lelek at the beginning of Part 2. The pair has not been traveling together long; it’s likely that this is the first night during which Sanja doesn’t feel like a prisoner. In fact, Sanja’s quite emboldened from the events of the day – when Part 2 opens the pair is sparring, and it’s clear from her face that Sanja feels completely energized and in her element. After dinner, as the two lay down to sleep, the warm yellow of the firelight engulfs them, cutting through the blue-black of night. The moment feels emotional and soft, and when Lelek opens up about her past, the resulting flashback carries forward only the blue tones and none of the yellow. In the present, Lelek has found warmth and support, but as the reader swiftly learns, in the past she had that ripped away.
There are several more moments through this already emotional comic in which Chouteau’s work deepens the impact of the story. For example, when the girls visit Sanja’s grandmother, the sweet, pastel brightness of her town and home make it easy for the reader to see why Sanja is so desperate and excited to be there. When we first meet Sanja her world feels largely two-tone, and trapped – it’s mostly a solid teal and peach color, leaving very little room for variety or escape. Her grandmother’s home is much more complex. A yellowish tone gives her home a desert feel, but very pale pink and purple plants suggest a kind of hardiness and investment in life. The patterns Zabarsky draws onto plants, blankets and chairs further than sense of variety, even when Lelek slips outside to sit with her difficult feelings. Sanja follows her and drapes them both in a patterned blanket, and the texture of it, the plants and the ground reflect the brighter colors that had been present in the daytime. Sanja’s grandmother’s home has a resilience and loving warmth that leaves room for both girls to be whoever they want to be, with no gendered limits.
The second way Chouteau’s colors bring the comic into brighter life has less to do with the characters, and more with the world itself. Zabarsky has created a fascinating magical landscape that is easy for any reader to dive into. Lelek controls her magic with the candle that floats above her head, and by smearing white wax on her fingers, she can draw draw magic from the air and even from inside herself. The roots of this world’s magic feel both personal and natural. However, Chouteau’s colors suggest that, once drawn from a source, witches also give magic new life. In a particularly compelling fight, Lelek turns her initially invisible breath into peach-colored winds that feel extra-powerful and overwhelming. Much later, when Sanja is dragging an injured Lelek through powerful wind and snow, the teal, curved lines that take over the panels remind the reader that the powerful magic we’ve seen Lelek wield comes from this natural force.
Bug Boys, Volume 1
Laura Knetzger (Writer and Artist)
Lyle Lynde (Colors)
Random House Graphic
While Lyle Lynde’s colors are quite different than Chouteau’s, they enhance Laura Knetzger’s original comic in a similar fashion. Like Witchlight, Bug Boys is a very emotional comic. It focuses on the relationship between Stag-B and Rhino-B, two best friends who live in a bug village. Many of the comics reflect on the nature of growth and their personal concept of adulthood; a story about a third of the way through the book involves them participating in a coming-of-age ceremony, after which the village officially considers them adults. The boys often make emphatic statements or declarations that, in the new edition, are lettered in red instead of black, upping the drama of these moments. Stag-B and Rhino-B don’t have much responsibility at the start of the volume, but they take on important tasks as they grow over the course of the stories, and that growth is usually kick-started with these little declarative incidents.
Lynde, of course, does more than provide subtle emphasis to important twists and turns in the plot. “In the Dark,” a trippy story that comes toward the end of the volume, finds Rhino-B and Stag-B separated from their friends in a scary place called the Deep Dirt Cave. They’re drawn to strange floating lights which seem to pull their deepest sense of purpose from their bodies – or, for Rhino-B, a lack of purpose.
These different reactions reflect the boys’ respective character growth. Stag-B has really been finding himself as he works with Dome Spider in the library and goes on adventures and missions for her. As the stories progress, Stag-B begins to look out for additions to the library even outside of his time spent on specific, Dome Spider-assigned tasks – he seems to have found his calling. Rhino-B, however, has been struggling a bit with what he wants to do as an adult, especially as he’s been watching his friend grow by finding meaningful work.
When the boys catch the floating lights, the lights take over their bodies, but in starkly different ways. Rhino-B takes on the bright pink glow as the sense of powerlessness and hopelessness inside himself takes over his being. Stag-B explodes with a yellow-green light as he finds joy and a sense of inner power. When the two collide, Stag-B is able to offer some of his peacefulness and security to Rhino-B in the form of a white star. Rhino-B offers up a black star, and when they explode and return the bug boys back to their original forms, both emerge in a pink light, suggesting that Stag-B also took something from Rhino-B – perhaps, a bit of the heavy load his friend was carrying.
Knetzger was able to express some of this emotion through simple spot color in the original edition of Bug Boys. Stag-B developed a pink gem on his belly, Rhino-B a green one, and after breaking each others’ gems the boys’ magical forms dissolved. A two-page spread void of bug boys give way to the same spread, but now with both boys in their original bodies, embracing. There’s a sense that they’ve broken out of something and found each other, and the story still has great emotional impact. However, the redraw and Lynde’s colors are able to create the suggestion of an exchange, in which Rhino-B gives Stag-B hope and provides emotional support. The impact is wildly enhanced.
Just as Chouteau has done for Witchlight, Lynde has also enriched the world of Bug Boys. Stag-B and Rhino-B live in a lush natural world, and Lynde employs a variety of greens, browns and blues to create and emphasize the layers of that world. Blades of grass pop up from the ground, honeycombs rest on yellow ground so bright it feels made of glass, and red and tan mushroom homes feel extra sweet. Lynde and Knetzger have also added additional texture and shading to the comic’s panels, and this new ink combined with the colors make Stag-B and Rhino-B’s world feel like a place readers could jump right into.
It’s been exciting to see Random House Graphic picking up incredible books like Bug Boys and Witchlight, and now that these new editions are out in the world, I see a lot of value in picking them up. Both titles have officially been released, and I encourage to you find your local bookstore through Indiebound or look up a local comic shop, and see if they’ll ship a copy or do a safe, no-contact curbside pickup. These are frightening and difficult times, so treat your eyes to some lush colors and sweet, emotional, healing stories.