November 2, 2018

Review: ASHBORN by Cait Zellers

For some, the Cinderella story is a fable of good triumphing over evil; the amiable and gracious is rewarded in the end, winning over the mean-spirited and cruel. For others, it is a repressive tale of the dwindled power of female agency, a concession to the patriarchy’s view of a woman’s value. For the Brothers Grimm, though, it was a story of blood-soaked revenge in which the step-sisters of Aschenputtel are mutilated, their feet hacked to fit into a golden slipper, their eyes pecked out by doves. It’s a grisly tale that is hard to reconcile with the cultural cache of the blue-eyed Disney Princess, friend to a nest of singing mice.

Bippity Boppity Boo.

Cartoonist Cait Zellers has her own take on this classic story. Her new comic, Ashborn, is, like the Grimm Brothers, filled with revenge and blood, but Zellers adds to this the further question of how far one is willing to go for retribution. It asks, “when the Devil reaches out a hand, will you take it?” In Zellers’ telling, the comeuppance at the heart of the story of Cinderella is retained, but, in the end, it leaves the future uncertain and, perhaps, horrific.
Graphic in nature, intent, and execution, Ashborn revels in cruelty. The main character has been humiliated, beaten, burned, and assaulted by those to whom she is compelled to serve. Its “Viewer Discretion Is Advised” label is well earned. Into this, though, Zellers also layers ideas about class and race that speak to our times, adding a depth and immediacy to this period piece so as to speak directly to its audience. It becomes a story about colonization and capitalism, as much as it is about women’s issues.

Zellers’ art is the perfect compliment for what she is doing in Ashborn. Her lines are thin, yet they hold the weight of this story much like surface tension holds the form of a water droplet, quivering, defying gravity. In terms of pacing and layouts, Zellers fully understands constriction and release, moving the action along to heighten both the drama and the emotional intensity necessary for this story to maintain its effect. Ashborn’s palette, too, works to emphasize both the power differences between characters and the suddenness of vengeance. Against a background of beige and gray, Zellers has her red pop off the page abruptly, beautifully, grisly.
Ashborn is evidence of the talent of Cait Zellers to tell a story that transcends its basic premise. Daring to take a well-worn trope and make it into something powerful, she demonstrates that not only does she understand her craft, she understands its potential.

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