June 6, 2013

Review -- JOYWELL by Dalton Rose

This Review Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
(Dalton Rose, Study Group)
4/5 stars
Dalton James Rose has a short comic called Joywell over on Study Group. It's ostensibly a horror story about a lost cat and a war between magical beings, and Rose tells it quietly in bright colors and large panels. It explores ideas about growing up using a quest motif. Joywell is quickly done from start to finish, yet its echos resonate for some time afterward.

The story begins with a young girl whose cat, Joywell, has gone missing. Joywell, as his name implies, is the source of her happiness. To recover her cat, the young girl must first travel to the center of a large mound in the middle of a park. She wanders through a tunnel which opens into a golden room made of sticks (or french fries. It's kind of hard to tell) festooned with detritus of culture -- televisions, bicycles, human skulls, a globe, the Sphinx -- wherein she finds a boy eating the hearts of cats to stay alive, one of which was Joywell's. This boy's hunger for cat hearts is a result of a curse by a witch, without them he will die. As it turns out, this witch is a young woman who sits in her brightly colored bedroom surrounded by plushies with red glowing eyes and a television tuned to static. 
There is conflict between the witch and the boy which, in just a few pages, is resolved. Joywell gets a new heart and is returned to his home at the foot of the young woman's bed. It is a simple and clean story both in its telling and Rose's art. His lines are crisp, his colors are vibrant, and his pacing, while hurried, never rushes the reader.

Yet nothing is easy in this comic. Rose's protagonist is at a turning point in her life. She must make a journey to recover not only the trappings of joy, but she must further her quest to find its heart. Through this process she confronts the fears inherent in transformation -- her rite of passage -- that we all must go through as we move from our childhood innocence into our more mature, experienced selves. She is presented with markers -- the bird boy and the witch -- both of whom embrace aspects of culture but have perverted them. The hero must rely, rather, on the help of someone entirely outside her experience, a ghoulish servant, to finally help her regain her joy. This is a coming of age tale recast as a gentle horror story, and there are indeed horrific moments, but that is not the intent here. 

You get the sense Rose identifies strongly with his protagonist and that, perhaps, his own journey into adulthood was not particularly smooth. Then again, whose is, which is why Joywell speaks to the universal instead of the personal.
This is a vibrant and quiet story that deserves your notice. 
You can find Joywell on Study Group, or on Rose's own blog.

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