The effective minimalist elegance of the storytelling, charming character designs, and compelling narrative of City in the Desert: The Monster Problem belies its author’s newcomer status.
Key Review Points
- Features an intriguing, smartly written story.
- Charming characters.
- Thoughtfully rendered art paired with highly polished storytelling.
- None of note.
- Publisher: Archaia Entertainment
- Publication Date: April 2012
- Written and illustrated by: Moro Rogers
- Lettered by: Deron Bennett
- Book design by: Fawn Lau
- Format: 144 page, full color, hardcover.
- List Price: $24.95 (digital review copy provided free-of-charge by the publisher)
- Availability: On sale on 14 November 2012 in comic book shops and on 27 November 2012 in bookstores.
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City in the Desert: The Monster Problem, the first in a series of graphic novels from new talent Moro Rogers, features what at first glance seems like a conventional modern fantasy parable about finding the balance between progress and the preservation of the environment. Irro and his monkey-like assistant Hari are paid by the mayor of Kevala to hunt monsters in the city’s desert outskirts, just barely keeping its citizens and the few caravans that brave the wilderness safe from attack. When a religious sect called The Way of the Sacred Peace arrives and finds a way to cut off what appears to be the natural wellspring of the monsters’ mystical life force, killing all the beasts, Irro and Hari soon find themselves without a job. Before long however, the people of Kevala start behaving strangely and the monster-hunting duo find themselves up against what appears to be a sinister cult with far-reaching powers.
Despite a basic premise that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hayao Miyazaki film (think Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke), Rogers’ tale offers some interestingly nuanced and quite unique story elements that allow it to stand out and apart on its own merits. It is easy to take Rogers’ portrayal of The Way of the Sacred Peace and their use of religious faith as a mass brainwashing tool—a literal “opiate of the masses,” as it were—as a blanket criticism of religion, but even though Irro seems to be an atheist (or at least hostile to organized religion), Hari, who is positioned as the “heart” and co-protagonist of the book, prays at one of the local temples and asks her deity of choice for favors. The Way of the Sacred Peace’s doctrine, too, is an interesting creation: Its leader offers followers an escape from “the wheel of suffering,” a clear parallel to Buddhism’s concept of saṃsāra, although it is apparent that the “sacred peace” that he provides devotees comes at the cost of their conscious volition. It’s also important to note that the story, despite what initially looks like a lighthearted treatment, doesn’t shy away from depicting dark and disturbing situations: Mercenaries employed by the Way of the Sacred Peace take full advantage of Kevala’s psychically enfeebled converts and it is implied that they loot, murder, and rape at will.
The art in City in the Desert: The Monster Problem can be described as relatively minimalist, in that readers won’t find extensive textural detail and color fills. This isn’t to say that Rogers’ work is under-rendered—rather, it is the case that she packs in just enough detail in each page to facilitate the narrative. The practiced economy of line and color is quite refreshing in contrast to what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in today’s popular comics. Her ability to convey action, emotion, mood, weight, and momentum with clear gestures, unambiguous facial expressions, and dynamic shifts in perspective and lighting give her work an animated, near-cinematic flair. I can’t stress enough how important a firm grasp of these principles are—there are many “name” artists in comics who seemingly have never mastered these elements of visual storytelling, instead relying on extreme detailing and/or pointless stylization to mask stiff figures, inscrutable demeanor, unimaginative perspectives, a poor understanding of everyday physics, and clumsy panel-to-panel transitions.
Rogers’ rendering style puts me in mind somewhat of the work of the celebrated 20th century cartoonist and children’s book illustrator Barney Tobey, although I don’t mean to suggest that it is derivative or indeed, that Rogers is familiar with Tobey at all. The character designs are quite charming, and Hari is particularly adorable.
The rather abrupt conclusion to City in the Desert: The Monster Problem will catch more than a few readers off-guard. Make no mistake, the volume is coherent as a stand-alone piece, but the squeaker of an ending will make waiting for the next installment in the City in the Desert graphic novel series interminable for those charmed by its characters and caught up in its intrigues. Highly recommended.