The Courageous Princess, written and illustrated by Rod Espinosa. 3 vols. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-61655-722-5 et al.
I am something of a fan of Rod Espinosa, a Filipino draughtsman, former submissions editor of Antarctic Press, and creator of Amerimanga, who has upwards of fifty titles to his name. Years ago, on my previous blog, I reviewed his Neotopia, Battle Girlz, Chronicles of the Universe, DinoWars, and the first volume of the series we’re about to discuss.
The Courageous Princess was Espinosa’s Eisner-nominated breakout title. He originally created it as a self-published, illustrated storybook, and then he converted it into a comic and released it through Antarctic Press. The series, still incomplete, was collected and published in paperback in 2003, and that’s what I previously reviewed. For a long period, the series remained unfinished as Espinosa worked on other projects, but he at last completed the story and released the entire series through Dark Horse in 2015, now as a trilogy of graphic novels. The original collection, which is now the first volume, has been subtitled Beyond the Hundred Kingdoms, followed by The Unremembered Lands and The Dragon Queen.
I like Espinosa’s work, and this now-complete series is overall satisfying, but I can’t help but think it’s a bad sign. Espinosa showed a lot of promise when Courageous Princess first appeared, but has not shown much development since. He has a tendency to squander his talent on derivative and gimmicky projects such as steampunked fairy tales or a Rule 63 version of A Christmas Carol. I’m also beginning to see that even his original work is limited in range … like, I really enjoy that one Espinosa story about the teenage girl who is initially uncertain, but through her pure-heartedness and fortitude leads a motley band of misfits to topple an evil empire. Really, I do.
Anyway, the story of The Courageous Princess is a fractured fairy tale reminiscent of, if less zany than, Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles or the musical Into the Woods. The story takes place in the land of the Hundred Kingdoms, where characters from various fairy tales (and a few modern fantasy works) intermingle, though most have by now grown old and moved on with their lives.
Our heroine is the young Princess Mabelrose. Although descended from Aladdin on her father’s side and Prince Charming and Snow White on her mother’s, she lives in the small and comfortably shabby kingdom of New Tinsley. Rambunctious and tomboyish, she grew up playing with the servants’ children. Beloved by the people of her homeland, she is nonetheless unpopular with the stuffier princesses of the wealthier kingdoms, and thus her first ball is a disaster.
Mabelrose is kidnapped by a dragon with the unfortunate name of Shalathrumnostrium (seriously?), who carries her away to the Unremembered Lands where trolls and goblins roam. The dragon shuts her up in the castle that formerly housed Sleeping Beauty, surrounded by a forbidding swamp and a wall of briars. The dragon assures her that, since she is from a poor kingdom and is hardly the fairest in the land, no princes will bother coming to her rescue. He tells her ominously, “You will be mine for a long time. You will come when I command you, leave when I dismiss you, eat what I give you, wear what I want you to.”
That sounds kind of hot, actually.
Um … anyway, Mabelrose prays daily for a noble prince to come to her rescue, but since God helps those who help themselves, she eventually concludes that, given the dragon’s formidable defenses, if any prince is coming, “I’ll have to meet him halfway.” With that in mind, she tricks the dragon into leaving and loots his hoard before stealing away. Fortunately for her, the random items she grabs include a magic ring, seven-league boots, a bag of holding, a magic rope, and a camouflage cloak.
Perhaps ironically, there is in fact a prince riding to her rescue—her own father, King Jeryk, a retired adventurer who has donned his sword and saddled his old warhorse. As the story builds, Mabelrose and her dad are, unaware, heading toward each other. Jeryk’s story arc is not particularly important to the first volume, but he becomes a major character in volumes 2 and 3.
While evading trolls in the swamps, Mabelrose meets a talking porcupine named Spiky, who becomes her companion for the rest of her adventure. Spiky and Mabelrose slowly pick their way north toward the Hundred Kingdoms, evading the dragon and his legions of monsters.
Eventually, they seek refuge in a kingdom of funny animal people that had been conquered by an evil tyrant. What Mabelrose does there to defeat the tyrant concludes the first volume. Although not quite complete, the first volume is nonetheless reasonably satisfying, as it builds to an ending that lacks everything except Jeryk and Mabelrose’s reunion.
It is not as ambitious as his boldly imaginative yet disorganized magnum opus Neotopia, but this first book of Courageous Princess is nonetheless Espinosa’s best work. His art style here is already mature, the story is a lot of fun, and Mabelrose, with all her spunk and gumption, is a likable heroine. And since Espinosa has only modest feminist pretensions, he doesn’t feel the need to clobber anyone over the head with his “stronk females.” Mabelrose can use her wits and courage to escape from the dragon without getting self-righteous about it, and Jeryk can ride to rescue his daughter without getting demeaned for having a Y-chromosome. To see what I mean—and to see why this is important—simply compare this title to the similar but considerably more preachy Princeless, which is so hamfisted it actually uses the word “sexism” … in the blurb on the back.
It is obvious on entering the second volume, The Unremembered Lands, that Espinosa has been away from this title for a while. Unsurprisingly, he can’t quite draw Mabelrose’s apple-cheeked face the way he used to. In a sense this is appropriate, as the comic is about her growing up, and she looks decidedly more mature in volume 2 than she does in volume 1. Perhaps most striking, however, is that his art hasn’t improved in a decade; Mabelrose has a slightly different face, but Espinosa’s style is otherwise the same … except when it’s worse.
In volumes 2 and 3, Espinosa shows increased dependence on the computer. He’s always used Photoshop (or something) to enhance his comics, but he goes overboard this time. The computer graphics look downright lazy; this is a guy who studied architectural drafting, and whose claim to fame is scenery porn, but he has now replaced his intricately detailed backgrounds with 3D-rendered mountains and hills that he appears to have ripped off from Google Earth. It looks terrible.
See for yourself. This first image is of Mabelrose gazing at mountains in volume 1:
And here’s Mabelrose gazing at mountains in volume 2:
I’m amazed his editor at Dark Horse didn’t send that back and say, “Fix this.” It may very well have taken a long while to make those CGI backgrounds, but they look lazy and they’re distracting. Basically, all of volumes 2 and 3 look like hand-drawn characters pasted over the top of screenshots from a ’90s video game. Making it seem even worse, Espinosa prints a few illustrations from the self-published storybook version of Courageous Princess at the end of volume 3. Check this out:
Why couldn’t he make the whole comic look like that? Someone, his publisher or somebody, needs to tell Espinosa to turn off the computer and spend more time with his pen.
Even if her look has changed, the heroine is similar. Mabelrose is still goofy but resourceful and still has a penchant for picking up eccentric sidekicks. So many years later, Espinosa still remembers how to write her—though that may be because most every heroine he creates is a variation of her. Mabelrose appears to be Espinosa’s version of Talbot Mundy’s Princess Yasmini or Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä, his ideal female who keeps appearing in different versions throughout his work: Neotopia is about Mabelrose with an airship, Battle Girlz is about Mabelrose as a mech pilot, and so forth.
Although the characterization is continuous, the second and third volumes contain a separate plot from the first. Espinosa retcons Mabelrose’s origins: in volume 1, he shows her growing up as a rambunctious tomboy playing with the servants’ children. In volume 2, however, he depicts her growing up in the shadow of twin cousins who could beat her at every game.
Apparently, Espinosa decided to take away Mabelrose’s tomboyish inclinations in order to emphasize that her successes are due to courage and quick thinking rather than any athletic ability. She still climbs up and down ropes like a bawss, though.
The retconning of Mabelrose’s backstory also introduces a new villainess, a jealous dragon queen who lives in a sky castle and means to conquer all of the Hundred Kingdoms. Supposedly, she is the power behind the power, the one who was controlling Shalathrumnostrium, though that’s a little hard to reconcile with some of the details from volume 1.
Volume 2 focuses more heavily on King Jeryk, who’s trying to put together an army to go after the dragon. Unable to raise soldiers because the various kingdoms are too busy preparing for an anticipated giant invasion, Jeryk turns to his old friend Puss n’ Boots, who gathers an eccentric band of cast-off fairy tale sidekicks with various magical powers.
Meanwhile, Mabelrose makes a new companion in the form of the pushy Prince Ingle, who transforms into a frog when he gets nervous. As Mabelrose, Spiky, and Ingle make their way into the Hundred Kingdoms, they discover that Jeryk’s band had been attacked and captured by giants … so it’s right back into the Unremembered Lands for a rescue.
The story continues with various encounters, captures, betrayals, and fights, climaxing with aerial battles around the dragon queen’s sky castle. It’s fast-paced, and the action is for the most part well-depicted. There are obvious influences from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It’s not exactly bad, but it feels very different in tone from the first volume; in many respects, what with its unassuming princess who becomes a leader and fights an evil overlord through a series of sky battles, it feels a lot like a rehash of Neotopia, except with fewer laser guns.
Curiously absent from volumes 2 and 3 are the first volume’s emphasis on prayer. I don’t exactly miss this detail, because I always thought that part of the story was heavy-handed, but its silent elimination from the succeeding volumes is puzzling.
Espinosa had an interview with Adherents.com back in 2006 in which he discussed Mabelrose’s religious affiliation:
Mabelrose is a unique character, don’t you think? In a comics world filled with apparent atheists who only believe in themselves and what they can get out of others, she’s the only one who really does pray sincerely. From an artistic point of view as far a comics goes, it really hasn’t been done yet! Think about that! It’s groundbreaking!
That’s taking it a little far, but it’s still curious that this detail, which Espinosa had emphasized as important because “it is an act of humility to pray,” has suddenly disappeared at the same time that Mabelrose has grown more assertive. Is he indicating that, somewhere between 2003 and 2015, she lost her humility?
I like Espinosa and wish he were more successful and widely known (that Neotopia didn’t win several awards is a crime), but I also think it’s time for him to branch out. In the course of writing this review, I checked what he’s up to nowadays and found out—quelle surprise—that he’s creating yet another comic book series about magical action girls.
Adventure Finders https://t.co/NoSBr96kxH
Download your copy of the pilot episode now!
— rod espinosa (@Rod_Espinosa) August 16, 2017
His tastes are the same as mine, but I nonetheless think he should consider diversifying his corpus.