Hopeless Maine: The Gathering – Tom & Nimue Brown (Sloth Comics)

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The series in a nutshell- A gothic Victorianesque world with a variety of strange creatures where one little girl orphan is struggling with her loneliness, with why the world is what it is and becoming a witch.  This was originally a web comic which explains the bite size chapters that are nicely contained.

The prelude is a mostly black and white affair following a blind fisherman and his capture of the baby that will become Salamandra- the main character of the series. This is a strong origin story which is mysterious, tragic and sets the tone for the whole series. There is no dialogue in this small prelude but rather poetry which is a unique approach however poetry isn’t my thing. There are some great passages but for the most part I preferred to see the story unfold through the images rather than reading the poetry on the next page. 

The main part of this graphic novel is split into two books- Personal Demons and Inheritance. From the very first page of Personal Demons we are thrust into the strangeness of this world with the question the number of orphans rises continually, But what happens to their parents?With little or no guidance the perils the children will face even from simple things like what to eat and about bullies can become bigger problems. Then there is the hint about finding out what happened to the parents. What this graphic novel does best is create a strange world, not fully explain it but have people accept it like the Scott Pilgrim series did; then hint at a series of storylines like how come nobody can leave this place?  Why won’t the witch teach Salamandra?

Back to the first book, Salamandra is living on her alone and rescued by the witch (Ann Marie) she is dropped off at the orphanage where her strangeness isolates her from most of the people.  This sounds like any number of young adult books however there are multiple differences like her origin and the nature of the world.  The creatures are my favourite feature of the world as there are some that can be eaten, some that give off light, demons and others that feed off negative emotions. It’s the last creature which takes the form of a little girl which I found the most interesting as she played on Salamandra’s sadness before targeting others.  It was this creature that one, allowed Salamandra to change and two, empathised how dangerous the world could be. 

I realise I’ve focused a lot on the world and that’s because it’s very well built but the characters are also well wrote. Salamandra’s actions, her thoughts, her dialogue all paint a picture of an innocent girl desperate for friends, loyal but mischievous. There’s a scene where she is being lectured by the Orphanage Director and tries to run his words against him and it reminds me so much of how careful you have to be with what you say to kids and how they’ll try to get their own way. Salamandra could be anyone’s child in her actions which is why you can’t help but root for her. Then there’s her powers, mainly creating light and destroying things but the limit of her powers aren’t mentioned so there’s yet another storyline to be explored.

Book two- Inheritance is a lot more grown up with Salamandra trying to find her way in the world and why it is like it is. There’s more characters introduced including her eccentric grandfather and some like Owen are much more developed. It’s beautiful and refreshing to see a strong friendship between two characters in a young adult series and it doesn’t involve romance. Owen is such a tragic character with his distant dad who can’t answer all his questions, his ill mother and the fact that he’s older than the kids at the orphanage. He and Salamandra are a formidable team but then the reveal that there is a way off the island creates a problem. This story whilst lacking the naivety of the first book is more tragic and expands the world to offer even more potential storylines. In fact it reminds me of run of Tom Defalco’s Fantastic Four in the 90s where there was at least three storylines implied or running in each issue.

I’ve spoken enough about the story, the world and characters mainly from the writing side now. Hell, this is probably my biggest comic review. The art is amazing, it’s gothic, there’s different colour schemes and whilst the faces aren’t the most detailed, the majority of the character designs are individual. I love how striking the eyes are for all the characters, with the array of colours and shapes which express emotion. Salamandra’s eyes like the demon girl’s seem to change based on emotion or when she uses powers is a great touch and shows how Salamandra is no normal witch. The creatures are varied, with weird eyes, different textures and shapes to the point I don’t know which are safe to eat, touch or even their function which again empathises how dangerous this world is.  There are empty bottles, candles and a lot of everyday items left outside with no explanation- do they ward off spirits? Are they sacrifices? Are they in memory of parents lost? This inclusion of random items is not random it’s clever and hints at more storylines.

Despite all the positives in this series there are two issues I have with the graphic novel. One, I don’t understand who the gossiping people are fully including Frampton and some of these minor characters look like others which is confusing. Two, there is no mention how long has passed between the first and second book which makes it hard to pin Salamandra‘s age. She seemed about ten in the first book but in the second one she is a lot more confident, her dialogue is more grown up and she looks older so maybe two or three years. If so I’d like to know what happened between the two books.

Overall, I really enjoyed this gothic young adult tale with its amazing world building, brilliant art particularly the eyes and hints of multiple storylines.  I’m looking forward to reading the next instalments. David Jenkins

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