Compass South is a YA adventure graphic novel, a genre I’m happy to see revived in comics. While the story shows its influences to a distracting degree (Tintin, et al), it’s an entertaining, suspenseful tale, albeit with a bit of a slow start. Author-illustrator Hope Larson writes, coming off the heels of her well-received comics adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, and the star cartoonist and illustrator Rebecca Mock draws (credited with the possibly demeaning billing of “Illustrations by”). It follows Dickensian adolescent twins Alex (disguising himself as “Samuel”) and Cleopatra (becoming Patrick, a boy), who “fink” on a pirate, and then disguise themselves as a rich man’s lost twins to try to get some money. The gender play is handled subtly, with the story suggesting that Patrick is more comfortable presenting as a boy. Through treachery, the twins get separated onto different ships. There are the usual macguffins in the form of a knife and compass given to the two by their long-lost father, which turn out to be keys to a treasure of some kind.
While Hope Larson’s story is often formulaic to a fault, several character touches and Rebecca Mock’s art elevate the book to a degree. Mock’s characters are supple and gestural, and her linework and structure make the world a pleasure to look at. Her illusionistic cartooning has shades of shojo manga in expressive eyes (Mock is co-editor of the Hana Doki Kiri anthology), filtered through a European ligne claire lens. However, several factors hinder enjoyment of the art: the small trim size, some muddy colors (possibly a result of the printing), the inadvisable choice of glossy paper, and pixelated linework. The size and format of an old Tintin book would have really benefitted the tall sails of the ships and the seafaring vistas. A story point involving washing up on a jungle frustrates: several Native characters play into tropes of “Natives helping white protagonists.” This passes quickly, but it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.
The book moves along at a breezy pace, though the dialogue is sometimes stilted and the visual storytelling occasionally awkward. Overall, I was happy to follow Alex and Patrick on their adventures. The story concludes in a sequel, Knife’s Edge, and the ending leaves plenty of questions waiting to be answered.