Is it just me, or have terms like “clever” and “charming” gotten something of a bad rap as the years go by?
Once employed as compliments denoting very specific things, in these more cynical times they’re all too often reduced to being somewhat off-handed qualifiers, trotted out on occasions when a person (or, hey, even a critic) really isn’t saying something particularly nice about a book, comic, film, etc. “I suppose it’s clever enough, but —,” “I guess I found it charming, but —.” You get the drill.
Here’s the thing, though: while works that are legitimately clever and/or charming may seem to be in shorter and shorter supply as we get older, they’re still out there. Coming across one can still bring a sense of sheer delight. Which brings us (go on and say it, “finally!”) to Ansis Purins’ new graphic novel, Super! Magic Forest, from the always-interesting Revival House Press.
Purins, a first-generation Latvian-American cartoonist hailing from the Boston area with Xeric Foundation and M.I.C.E. grants to his name already, has been building his miniature magical world for some years now, most recently in the pages of his self-published Zombre series. To say that the characters and concepts on offer in this generously formatted book have arrived “fully formed,” then, wouldn’t be accurate, but honestly, that’s of no particular consequence: you needn’t know a damn thing about anything that’s come before to both fully understand, as well as appreciate the heck out of, this story. All you need to do is to be willing to check your cynicism at the door for about an hour and a half and enjoy the ride.
And trust me when I say that if you can manage the former task, you’ll most definitely accomplish the latter, as well, because if there’s one thing Purins excels at, it’s getting readers to take the immersive in stride. Our protagonist is an elf named Twig Leaf, a descendent of great warriors who is yearning for a quest to call his own and thereby add his name to a proud family lineage, which he’s handed when his de facto tribal elder tasks him with finding the provenance of a mysterious object (sorry, to say more would be to say too much) discovered in the picnic area of the state park where our titular magic forest is situated. There’s a wise old wizard who should be able to discern its whys and wherefores, but getting it across the forest (sorry, the park) to him, well — that’s the tricky part.
Obviously, the skeletal plot here is a simple enough affair on its face, and the juxtaposition/contradiction of worlds real and magical has been done many a time before, but such trivialities needn’t preclude a person from finding tremendous enjoyment in seeing them executed well, and Purins is a master at bringing a fresh, new perspective to time-worn tropes. As already mentioned, he’s had time to build up to this moment, and, as such, his familiarity with his characters and concepts is readily apparent, even — perhaps especially — to readers with no such sense of familiarity themselves. There’s a definite sense that we’re being guided by a steady hand from page one onwards here and that we can trust that guide to get us where we need to go — regardless of whether or not Twig Leaf manages to do the same.
Much of that is down to Purins’ flat-out exemplary cartooning, an amalgamation of auteur-level choices ranging from the subtle to the bold that invariably work out like, well, magic. Twig Leaf may be the narrative’s focal point, but there is a broad and expansive cast of weird, wild, and wonderful characters here, ranging from cave ghosts to zombies to paladins to park rangers to animals of more or less every stripe, and each is rendered in a singular style with varying levels of detail. In a pinch, it’s fair to say that they’re all “cartoony” in the classical sense, but Purins’ designs, along with his strikingly apropos color choices, add a level of depth and distinction to not only every personage, but to every place and every scenario we encounter on our journey. His intuitive utilization of space and his understanding of the possibilities afforded by the page also come to the fore right off the bat and remain there throughout, lending the project a sequential fluidity that is as obviously and comprehensively thought-through as it is entirely expressive and unforced. This is a cartoonist that truly cares about every panel he draws, and, as such, his comic is suffused with that most important, if ultimately unquantifiable, quality of all: heart.
I’m fully aware that’s more than a bit of a loaded term, and, perhaps, one that is in the “diminishing returns” phase of its linguistic lifespan a la “clever” and “charming,” but, nevertheless, you almost always know it when you see it — and just as importantly, you know when you don’t see it. All magical talismans and good luck charms aside, at the end of the day it’s heart that is Super! Magic Forest’s secret weapon, and it’s one that Purins deploys constantly and consistently throughout. His characters may often be tiny, but their hearts are huge and, at the risk of sounding almost embarrassingly effusive with my praise, it’s pretty clear that Purins is, as well — and he puts that heart to very good use indeed, crafting an all-ages comic with the power to bring out the childlike sense of wonder in everyone. Yeah, sure, “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” and all that — but here’s one for the kid in all of us.