In its short existence, TKO Studios, a company I find myself engaging with over and over again, has published mostly familiar voices. These are people your average Wednesday warrior has heard of: Garth Ennis; Steve Orlando; Jeff Lemire; Steve Epting. Proven industry talent - you know what you get with these people. Which is why I was delighted to find out they intend to publish the first English-language graphic novel by Juni Ba, a writer-artist from France and Senegal.
I became aware of Ba few years ago through the sadly unfinished sci-fi saga Kayin and Abeni - Afro Space Adventures. Despite being very much a green series, wearing its heart on its sleeve and waving its artistic influences proudly, the explosive potential was there from the first page: Ba had a great sense for character design, a cartoonish dynamism that carried his action set pieces forward, and the ability to mix world-building with proper storytelling. This was an artist worth noting.
Djeliya, his first longform solo project, shows he’s made large steps in a rather short amount of time. It’s still feels like a young person’s effort, but a young person who knows what he’s trying to say and how to say it. It’s a five-part science fiction / fantasy mix, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world. The land has been shattered by the tower of a mysterious (and wicked) wizard, giving rise to an age of strife and warfare. Prince Mansour, the son of a great king, is forced to wander the land after the death of his father and the downfall of his kingdom. He is accompanied by Awa, his personal Djeli: a mix between a storyteller, spiritual guide and hype man. The two find themselves entangled with a corrupt businessman (well, business-pig) / religious leader Mbam, and forced into a series of challenges while attempting to regain their former position, and (maybe) save the world.
I've had issues with TKO’s publishing model in the past. Releasing comic book miniseries simultaneously with their trade collections led to stories with a sense of drag to them. Even experienced writers, people who should know better, tended to produce stories with soft middle sections, or endings that dragged on one step too many - as if they weren’t quite sure how to properly pace the story, and ended with something that is neither fish not fowl, with the negative qualities of both formats.
Ba’s effort, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from this problem. The story structure embraces the miniseries format, with each issue / chapter bringing with it a certain challenge to overcome. Owing to Ba’s manga influences, it’s a proper mix - with the physical aspect of each opponent mirroring the emotional growth of the protagonists. Thus, the hyena-headed general of chapter I, with his willingness to plunder the land no matter the price, teaches Mansour to look inwardly at his own selfishness: the damage he is willing to inflict on others in order to achieve his goals. Or the giant, unstoppable robot in chapter II – a relic of the past unable to let go of its programming, and a reminder of Mansour's and Awa’s veneration of their father figures, forcing them to grapple with the more poisonous aspects of their legacy.
But enough with this talk of plot. Or themes. There will be many chances to dig deeper into a writer’s attempt to grapple with the legacy of fantasy storytelling and its non-judgmental worship of ‘good’ kings and noble lineages. Let’s talk art, which is the thing that grabs you immediately when just gazing at the work. There’s some late 1990s shōnen manga (the depictions of impact and crackling energy), some early 2000s Cartoon Network animation (mostly in the character expressions and design), and even bits and pieces of early Franco-Belgian adventure comics (some the physical reactions can actually bring to mind the latter, more humor-minded Tintin albums). It’s a whole smorgasbord of influences, which Ba manages to distill into a style all of his own.
Oddly enough, I find myself thinking of Frank Miller in his Ronin period. Partly because Miller’s own style bleeds into Ba’s through second generation influences: Miller begets Genndy Tartakovsky, which begets Juni Ba. Mostly, however, it’s in the way one creator manages to create something new by borrowing and remixing many previous styles and cultures.
There’s boldness to the action scenes. A page in which Mansour jumps into quickly-stretching battle armor brings to mind the best of mecha manga with their understanding of dramatic gesture, and strong finishes to accentuate the scene. The quick cut from a panel of Mansour touching the ground, causing the whole page to shake with large SFX, to a panel of his opponents' previously-blank faces twisted into fear and surprise - Ba sells this scene to readers twice. Once with what he shows, and again with the reaction; both end up equally powerful.
Yet there is also room for gentleness in this hyper-kinetic world of kings and magicians. Chapter III, undoubtedly the best of the lot, is a mix of Will Eisner and EC Comics, following the lives of several villagers whose peaceful existence is disturbed by the sudden appearance of the wizard’s tower. Y’know: those classic The Spirit strips where he’d be in one panel, and the rest is all the little people who usually serve as background characters – it’s like that, only written through the prism of a Twilight Zone episode, including the clearly-worded moral at the end. It’s just fun seeing Ba setting up all these characters and interactions quickly before breaking them down; almost makes you wish he’d set aside more time playing in this sandbox rather than going for the world-saving stuff (which is more of a type).
Now, unlike Miller in Ronin, Ba has yet to arrive fully. Miller synthesized his influences into tightly-controlled panel layouts that guided the reader through even the most complicated turn of events, including full pages of well-choreographed action taking place entirely in the dark. Comparatively, the action scenes in chapter IV of Djeliya are constantly teetering on the brink of chaos, sometimes allowing the artist's desire to showcase impact to overcome wiser storytelling choices – too much is happening on the page, sometimes in too-tight close up, just stacking the page with crackling energy. Still, it is better to be overenthusiastic in presentation than under.
Whatever faults it may have, Djeliya represents early steps of someone who’s shaping to be a major talent. More than that, however, it’s a comic book that is just fun to look at, that tries to bring energy into every page and panel. The world of mainstream comics is often controlled by dead-eyed works that seem to move forward thanks to sheer inertia rather than any desire to tell a story; it’s nice to be reminded there are other, better, ways.