Francis Sharp Review

By | Thursday, December 09, 2010 Leave a Comment

I just got and read a copy of Brittney Sabo's & Anna Bratton's Xeric-winning Francis Sharp in the Grip of the Uncanny! Let me say off the bat that it's easily one of the most fun, entertaining books I've read all year!

The story starts with young Francis, whose family is struggling to keep their farm going. Francis doesn't want any part of it, though, and would rather flit off into his imagination in front of the radio or with comics. As he's playing "The Occultist" with a friend in the field, he spies an unusual creature that looks kind of like the shadow of a fox. He chases the creature for a while, eventually losing it, his friend and his way. A passing stranger does give him a lift into town on his cart, but it's a town VERY strange and unfamiliar to Francis. All the inhabitants have long, pointed ears and angular faces. After a night hiding under some stairs, he's befriended by some cousins who try their best to help him back home. But the trail Francis took into this strange land doesn't seem to take him back home again...

It's a little hard for me to pin down exactly what drew me into the story. Francis isn't the type of character I'm usually drawn to -- he's irresponsible, self-centered, impractical and not entirely ethical. Despite those flaws, he's still an affable character and one does get the sense that he's going to learn a thing or two by the time he eventually does get home. (This book is only chapter one, after all!) We don't see much of Francis' parents or his friend (although, the dynamic between he and Francis is quite well done) and the two goblins who help Francis later seem nice, but they're introduced late enough in the story that we don't get to see a whole lot of characterization with them yet.

Sabo's art is well-suited for this tale. Her figures are smooth and pleasant-looking (some really nice line work with them overall) and she's also got a very good eye for using spot blacks to create/enhance the mood. Especially potent on the key story beats, like when Francis overhears his parents discuss their financial problems or when he first realizes that he's in a strange town full of goblins.

(On a slight side-note, I might also note that she illustrated a gorgeous piece of Francis encountering that shadow fox creature as a frontspiece in my copy. When you buy the book from her site, there's an option for a "free sketch" in the book, but this was the most detailed and elaborate "sketch" I've ever had the pleasure to receive in a book. Fully inked to boot, and I spent a fair amount of time just studying her brushwork on that one image.)

At some level, the book has a Wizard of Oz/Alice in Wonderland notion running through it. Young kid who doesn't care for his/her home life falls into a magical realm, and learns to appreciate how great home really is. What strikes me as somewhat different here, though, is that, while Francis is surprised and apprehensive about this new world, it bears a number of similarities to his old world. An interesting angle that appears to be developing is that both Francis and his goblin friend have an mutual interest in cryptozoology but, while Francis reads about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, his counterpart studies fantastic creatures like... squirrels.

The book, as I said, is a lot of fun. I read (and review here) a lot of comics that are good -- even great -- and a lot of the creators' skills show through. And while Francis Sharp certainly does have some talent behind it (good storytelling and art, smooth dialogue, etc.) I just plain enjoyed reading it. I can just imagine the Xeric judges looking at this and saying, "Let's not bothering voting this time around; just put the award in the mail for this now."

Francis Sharp in the Grip of the Uncanny! Chapter 1 is available here for $10. An eleven page preview is also available at the site if you're not convinced yet.
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