Almost everyone who reads Amy Unbounded seems to have had it recommended by a friend. It's that kind of book. I first encountered Rachel Hartman's epic minicomic at the Alternative Press Expo two years ago. Not entirely sold by the unpolished artwork, I bought two issues at a dollar apiece. I read them in one sitting, stood up, returned to Hartman's hopeful little table, and purchased everything she had for sale. It's that kind of book.
Amy Unbounded is a comic book about Amy, a rambunctious, imaginative girl growing up in the medieval kingdom of Goredd. Goredd is a fantasy kingdom, but magical elements are few and far between, and mostly take place off-panel. In place of high fantasy, Hartman builds, from the ground up, a thoroughly plausible imaginary country, with its own clothing, architecture, music, folklore, literature, laws, and traditions. Amy's father is a weaver. Her mother is a barbarian clockmaker. Bran Ducanahan, the youngest of the many Ducanahan siblings, is Amy's best friend. In the city, wealthy merchant Pearl-Agnes buys cloth from Amy's father. Other characters amble by: Amy's girlfriends in the city, who grow up faster than she does; her uncle, a rather casually banished knight, who lives in the wilderness with his squire; a pair of flute-playing women from a distant country. . . and on and on, the spaces of Goredd filling quietly with familiar faces.
What Hartman is doing here is subtle, and more difficult than it looks. She is world-building, creating a place so vibrant and real that readers ache to step through the page into those fields they know so well.
Growing up, I longed to explore the labyrinthian manor house of The Secret Garden; I could not believe it was impossible to hike through the snowy woods of Narnia; I cried at the end of The Neverending Story, because I could never again visit Fantastica the way I visited it that first time. Who hasn't fallen in love, deeply in love, with a place in a book? With the first Amy Unbounded collection, Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming, Hartman is well on her way to crafting a fantasy world the equal of all the sun-drenched castles in the air we remember from childhoods of feverish bookworming.
Crises emerge in Belondweg Blossoming, first seeping in at the edges of Amy's summertime rambles, then growing more urgent. Amy's father runs into trouble with the Weavers' Guild, which wants him to move to the city. Pearl-Agnes' livelihood is threatened by the laws of Goredd, which allow a woman to own a business only under special circumstances. Bran's unmarried sister Niesta suffers under the rough "protection" of her brother Cullen, while her brother Niall, a priest, does what he can to help her. The scholarly dragon Lalo arrives in Goredd in human disguise. Some of these complications are resolved happily; others are not. Amy remains an observer, caught up in her own, smaller problems, until her decision to join the action marks her first step out of childhood.
Hartman's unadorned black-and-white art is still rough, particularly in the early chapters, but charming. She benefits from adopting a simple, cartoonish style, which effectively conveys the characters' personalities and moves the story smoothly along. She shines at drawing architecture and period costume, resulting in some attractive illustrations later in the book; a splash page looking down at a wedding comes off particularly well. Similarly, the writing is initially wobbly, especially in some of the early attempts at humor, but improves by leaps and bounds. Hartman's dialogue develops the sort of transparent grace which is rare in any fiction, and nearly unheard-of in comics.
The unfortunate state of the modern American comics industry inspires a couple of sobering thoughts about Amy Unbounded. One is, of course, that works like this are rare, and growing rarer all the time. Gentle, thoughtful fantasy comics come along once in a blue moon, and only a few, like Jeff Smith's Bone and Mark Crilley's Akiko, find the readership and critical appreciation they deserve. Most languish in obscurity. Amy Unbounded reminds me most of Linda Medley's glorious fairy-tale riff Castle Waiting, which Medley recently ended due to poor sales. Hartman was lucky. After producing Amy Unbounded as a photocopied, hand-stapled minicomic for several years, she won the prestigious Xeric grant for independent comics, which funded the publication of the glossy Belondweg Blossoming trade paperback. In the current market, this modest success is perhaps the best to which a good fantasy cartoonist can realistically aspire.
The other sobering thought is that, although Amy Unbounded is perfectly suited to thoughtful young readers, particularly girls, it's not likely that many children will find it. American publishers and distributors all but ignore the potentially lucrative children's comic market. It's difficult for a kid-friendly comic to reach a venue where kids are likely to find it. In a perfect world, Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming would sit in bookstore displays beside Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and other intelligent all-ages fantasy. In this world, we pray for a few understanding booksellers and a few intrepid kids.
Since the publication of Belondweg Blossoming, Hartman has continued to publish Amy Unbounded minicomics, with a new mini appearing every few months. Her recent work looks increasingly polished, and she's developed style and confidence as a storyteller without losing the simple charm of her work. Amy Unbounded is one of the small treasures of contemporary fantasy. It's a wonderful book to live in.
Copyright © 2003 Shaenon K. Garrity
Shaenon K. Garrity lives in a romantically dilapidated garret in San Francisco. She writes and draws the online comic strip Narbonic (part of the ModernTales.com webcomics subscription package) and writes two other webcomics, Trunktown (at Serializer.net), drawn by Tom Hart, and Li'l Mell (at Girlamatic.com), drawn by Vera Brosgol. She also edits manga for Shonen Jump magazine. To contact her, email email@example.com.