Almost Alice: Ichiro / by Erik Sugay

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UPDATE: This review is based on a black-and-white proof. After reading the finished, full-color version, my positive opinions of the book remain the same. It is so beautifully depicted that, regardless of color, Ichiro's strong conceptualization shines through. Ichiro is touted as a “wholly original fantasy adventure,” but this is not completely true. More than a few examples – like the main character being led, in this case, forcefully, down an abyssal hole by a four-legged creature – paint this substantial graphic novel as an homage to Lewis Carroll’s seminal Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Ichiro is an exceptionally told journey that thrusts the titular character into a world that, at first glance, he does not completely understand. However, it is a world that, with all of its eccentricities, is perfectly suited to helping Ichiro understand himself.

Growing up is a concept steeped in awkwardness. So much stock is put into what other people think of you and society’s perception of you as a whole. Considering that societal standards are always evolving (a single page denotes how quickly the world advances from generation to generation), that experience is largely unique to any given person.

Case in point: Ichiro’s unexpectedly refreshing characterization. A common presentation of awkward adolescence has that child attempting to figure things out on his own. Adults generally put effort into helping, but have difficulty as the child will usually be infuriatingly defiant to outside aid. Ichiro is different. He experiences enough adversity that a petulant attitude would not only be expected, but almost justified. Instead, he takes it in stride and doles out an equal amount of care as he receives. His wry sarcasm confirms an individualistic nature, but his vocal curiosity maintains an open respect to external wisdom.

Having no recollection of the father he lost to a war he did not comprehend and living in a culture where the lessons of said war are lost on the young (the short time he spends in both New York and Japan is sprinkled with fantastic racism), the half-Japanese, half-American Ichiro struggles to find his place of belonging. It is a fantastical fish-out-of-water tale (affirmed by his uncomfortable reaction to his first meal in Japan) supplemented by enough coming-of-age elements (look at him blush in the presence of giggling school girls) to make it relatable.

In spite of its monochrome color scheme, there is little question about what is going on in any given scene. The pace is quick, and transitions from scene to scene are natural. And despite the length of the book, the story rarely lets up. If it’s not vital information you are receiving, exquisite action takes the stage (skirmishes are quick, with no action wasted).

The tale is comprised of several aspects and their distinguishing styles transition seamlessly. During flashbacks, the illustrations dull slightly with the lighter grey tones offering a slightly, and fittingly, aged look. During a tour, the novel’s panels, superimposed over a top-down map, are used smartly to mimic photographs of the trip’s superficial high points.

During explanation of mythical origin stories, the presentation shifts beautifully to one that is almost sumi-e in implementation, with its similarities to the brushed ink wash painting technique. This appearance naturally extends to when Ichiro finds himself in the realm of the gods.

Overall, the character designs range from serviceable to magnificent. Human characters are nicely detailed, but pale in comparison to the denizens of the other realm. A mix of humorous designs (a giant top-half skeleton balancing on a single wheel like a unicycle) and creepy, nightmare-fueling ones (behemoth spiders and human-sized anthropomorphic crows) drive home this strange universe that is not to be trifled with.

It takes some time for him to get there, but the buildup of background story is necessary to appreciate the events that transpire. (Off-topic: was the court scene inspired by the 1980s animated feature film masterpiece, Transformers: The Movie? Quintessons? No? Ok.) Many of the seemingly estranged elements converge delightfully in the second half, and that culmination makes the wait worth it.

There are so many lessons to be had here – pride and paranoia lead to foolishness; with power, corruption and greed can manifest; there is no sense in dwelling on the past, but learning from it is tantamount; trivialities keep you from seeing the forest for the trees; rather than bowing to peer pressure, it's best to carve out your own niche – that one would expect the experience to be disjointed. It’s not. Rather, that disjointedness actually gives Ichiro a grander scale, with a subtly heartwarming story uniquely its own.

TL;DR A beautifully illustrated tale with a great sense of scale and wonderfully designed, intimidating creatures and settings. So many moral messages abound that the story risks becoming heavy-handed, but stellar execution prevents that.

Ichiro is written and illustrated by Ryan Inzana. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's, it will be in stores everywhere March 20. You can support Spandexless by pre-ordering it now from our Amazon web store.

A review copy of Ichiro was obtained by Spandexless through NetGalley