Leave It Behind: Stargazer Vols. 1 and 2 / by Erik Sugay

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There is a natural divide between parents and their children growing up, in general. And that is certainly the case here as Von Allan’s Stargazer begins with one of the lead characters, Marni, dealing with the loss of her grandmother, the adult relative closest to her. Inept at bonding with their daughter under normal pretenses, the parents try to force an emotional connection during these morose circumstances. Expectedly, the result is nothing short of uncomfortable. Marni’s two best friends can relate, though. Whereas parents, rational as all can be, would likely approach the situation wanting to talk openly about feelings and tackle the subject head on, friends can be a helpful distraction. They grant a way to forget, to escape, if only briefly.

For the most part, Stargazer did not tread the narrative route I anticipated. By chance, the protagonists are transported to an unfamiliar world and forced to cope with their surroundings while they search for a way home. Blending familiar elements of adventure (dark woods home to strange noises), fantasy (buildings that appear diminutive on the outside, but encase illogically immense interiors), and science fiction (silent and sentient robots) with the trappings of a coming-of-age story set up expectations that were expertly dashed.

Having children partake in a whirlwind journey of self-discovery, testing the limits of their friendship in the process, the story takes advantage of an unceasingly thick fog of tension. It’s refreshing seeing children able to handle themselves in harrowing situations, but – and this might be the protective nature of an adult reading this – the idea that they need to go through these distressing events alone is discomforting. (When the only tangible difference between two panels was the reveal of a set of unknown eyes watching the trio from a dark corner, my heart stopped.)

What is incredible about the children is that they have an insatiable curiosity that drives them. There are moments of trepidation when they venture into new unknowns (and really, as they’re teleported to an alien world, it’s all unknown), but they take to it with an almost reckless courage that is nothing short of energizing. You can’t help but feel simultaneously frightened for, and proud of, them.

Allan’s art fits the tale splendidly. There is a quirky mix of halftone patterns, streams of diagonal lines, crosshatching, and a conservative use of thick, black blots that really reflect the growing, conflicted, and still very childlike characters. The protagonists’ designs are neither ideally beautiful nor outright unattractive. Given the group’s presumed young age range, the rough shapes and lines that constitute them elevate them from being merely serviceable designs to awkwardly endearing characters.

The uncertain nature of these uneven illustrations conveys emotions in a realistic and believable way. It’s easy to see the different ways grief is addressed – learning to let go, being detached, or risking being consumed by despair and anger. Unfortunately, rather than allowing the characters to learn and grow from that lesson (the last few pages discard that notion), the ending seems to serve more as a cautionary tale for the readers alone and character development suffers because of it.

As it progresses, Stargazer refreshingly deviates from any sort of genre conventions. Too many questions remain unaddressed at its conclusion, and while the story ends on a note that I neither expected nor hoped for, I appreciate that the underlying theme of dealing with loss never faltered. It is not often that the subject of loss, grieving, and all of its trappings are told through the perspective of children just coming-of-age. Stargazer delves into that perplexing outlook effortlessly.

TL;DR  Charming art accompanies a whimsical, yet wholly relatable tale of how people, children especially, react to loss. The allegory it offers to readers ultimately detracts from character growth, but it’s a remarkably presented story regardless.

Stargazer is written and illustrated by Von Allan and published by Von Allan Studio. You can purchase volume one, here, and volume two, here.

A review copy of Stargazer was graciously provided to the Spandexless by the author.