Reviews

Aster and the Mixed-Up Magic

Aster and the Mixed-Up Magic

Thom Pico & Karensac

Random House Graphic

$12.99

256 pages

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If you have kids and you, personally, read comics -- which I'm assuming is a yes given your presence on this site -- then you will invariably end up reading a lot of inferior comics to your children; but it's also possible that, percentage-wise, kids' comics have a greater number of hits. Whenever my kids read something that they enjoy, they also want me to read it; I usually resist, but Aster and the Mixed-Up Magic and its predecessor, Aster and the Accidental Magic, are frickin' delightful and well worth your time. If you miss Hilda because Luke Pearson doesn't work fast enough for you these days, being a busy dude, these are right up your alley. Translated from the French, written by Thom Pico and drawn by Karensac, they also feature a spunky young heroine having nature-driven encounters with a host of magical critters while accompanied by a small white companion animal. Vast meadows, rocky terrain, parents who may not believe you, a real nice color palette, and a flat look with no gross, bad shading - these are also in both series, and both have a kind heart.

Pico and Karensac sprinkle their influences heavily throughout the Aster books (the main character is known as Aubépine, or Hawthorn, in French), with all kinds of Easter eggs in the background: references to Hilda; to Pokémon; to Adventure Time; to Gravity Falls. You could spend an entire read just looking for these little messages and enjoy yourself thoroughly. The process of world-building is also similar to Adventure Time and Gravity Falls: a measured roll-out of new areas, new characters, new bosses; an architecture that structures the whole thing; a map that shows you what's where while leaving room in between for discovery; a respect for jokes. The Aster books are less surreal and preoccupied with growing up than Adventure Time and less filigreed than Gravity Falls, and there are, sadly, only two of them, each encompassing two of the original French books. But Pico and Karensac have another series (Cendre et Hazel) that I hope Random House Graphic has already jumped on.

The mythology at work in the Aster books is a huge part of their appeal and the trick that makes them go. Over and over, it combines menacing/powerful with cute/silly, and it never stops working. A goobery frog-looking thing that can grant wishes turns out to be a trickster with the ability to wipe out all of reality. A round little grandma with a herd of dogs is, in fact, a force helping to keep nature in balance and the valley in existence. A revolutionary ram who wants to destroy the village leads a bunch of sheep with brains about as big and intellectually robust as peanuts. The god of autumn, a beautiful and somewhat frightening talking fox, gets turned into a weensy ball of fluff which ends up tucked in Aster's scarf, raging against his squee-ness. A horrifying monster laying waste to an underground community of wood lice is an adorbs baby goat. It's a child's way of looking at the world, one informed by finding your way through it and not knowing what's legitimately dangerous and what isn't, as well as what might be in certain circumstances.

Karensac's beautiful drawing mostly leans to the cute side of this equation (she loves to draw a doof with a tongue hanging out of its mouth) but manages to communicate some majesty, too, especially in the sweeping landscapes. Her wordless spreads are extremely effective, and although her comics work as comics and not as illustrations of screenplays, she's a little less invested in panel structure than a Luke Pearson, who uses the large scale of his pages to create images as complex as Chris Ware's. But largeness isn't necessarily the most important thing. Karensac and Pico understand that children instinctively love tiny things - not only that lil' bitty fox, but a trio of wee knights with chestnuts for heads. Research has shown that, in both adults and children, love of miniatures relates to the feelings of control they grant us, the ability to arrange and rearrange our worlds, especially when we likely have very little control over reality. These books are a fantasy of a world in which screens are minimized, nature is rarely gross or violent, and children have agency and power. Why wouldn't they be a wonder and a delight to their audience?

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