Kids suss out sincerity mighty quick. They’ll swallow lies, but children eat deceit for breakfast; it’s belief that counts. So, it is with Princeless Volume 1: Save Yourself by writer Jeremy Whitley and artist M. Goodwin, an all-ages comic with integrity, verve and the best kind of earnest self-awareness. The term “all-ages” is a bit of a misnomer here. Yes, Princeless is one for all, but, honestly, it’s all for one, especially pre-teen girls — if a white male in his late-thirties can be so bold as not to sound patronizing, pedantic or intolerant. To go one-step further, Princeless should be required reading, for every young reader who could stand to be more storybook prince and princess less. The bottom line is that there are too few comic books (all ages or otherwise) with positive portrayals of young women, but that’s not the reason to read Princeless or to make it a favorite for girls or boys. Read Princeless because it’s high-quality storytelling with first-rate art. Read Princeless because it’s a good comic book, a rarity, like positive portrayals of young women.
Requirements restrain and no one likes turning a leisure activity like reading into yet another scheduled event. Princeless is a tried and true adventure story replete with dragon riding, foe smiting and sword fighting. It’s fun and funny at the same time as Whitley winks at the reader with equal parts broad comedy and inside jokes about comic books and superhero stereotypes. Above all, Princeless charms because beneath its armored surface beats a heart of self-reliance and a DIY soul. Stories of “princesses-doing-it-for-themselves” are a rare although fierce force to be sure, The Paper Bag Princess, The Princess Knight and the upcoming Pixar movie Brave all come to mind. Princeless ups the ante of autonomy by also acting as a primer about equality in both pop culture and the comic book canon; important lessons for first-timers of any age. When Whitley wants to make a point (not to preach, but to teach) he takes an honest approach that doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb or wag a finger in anyone’s face. He makes his points, but he makes them fun and that makes all the difference.
Whitley’s narrative has both its feet firmly set in the family of fractured fairy-tales that lovingly tweak and twist their fabled forebears. M. Godwin’s art is a kind of tempered anime. The characters appear cartoony with thick black borders that outline easily understood irony-free faces that are full of emotion. This is a dialogue-heavy comic so Goodwin sometimes partitions panels within a larger frame or has a character pop over the gutters in order to make room for word balloons and dialogue boxes. Allowing characters to live “outside the box,” so to speak, adds a degree of dimension that is in harmony with the script.
The story opens within a story, a rote fairytale that ticks off all the trite tropes that Princeless challenges: ”a beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed princess […] the meanest dragon in all the kingdom [and] the bravest and most handsomest of all princes.” Once the tale is told, it is met with harsh criticism, ”hogwash,” says a young girl of color who goes on to point out the story’s failings, artistic flaws and the overall ineptitude of the author; such is the child as critic. This half-pint pundit is Adrienne, the precocious protagonist of Princeless, witty and wise beyond her years. Adrienne is not white. Later on in issue #1, Adrienne tells a hapless suitor that ”fair” means ”fair skinned” as in white. Pointing to herself she asks: ”Does this look fair to you?” In fairness, semantics are lost on children, but they know their colors. The fact that Adrienne is a princess of color is important because it is another way in which Princeless portrays positivity without being in-your-face or agenda-driven. Make no mistake, Whitley is making a political statement, but children don’t get hung up on the politics or statements. Young readers relate to Adrienne because she is relatable not because she is a character of color. The fact that she is “of color” makes as much difference to them as the fact that she is “of royalty.” Kids can intuit and once they do, they move on. For a child, Adrienne’s ”fairness” isn’t tolerated, it’s accepted.
As her mother leans in to kiss her goodnight, the little princess (almost) gets to fire off one more bon mot, “All I know is that when I turn sixteen, you and dad had better not lock me in some …” but before she can finish, she is literally (and figuratively) cut off to next panel where the now teenage Adrienne finishes her own sentence (pun intended) securely fixed in her own: ”… tower.” Whitley’s choice to introduce his main character as a child allows him to economically establish a backstory while also playing with (and against) the stock sitcom surly tween or teen whose only purpose is to crack wise. Adrienne is smart and she is a teenager so she comes by her sass honestly, but there is more there there. Adrienne is not the kind of relatable character that the reader wishes only to look or sound like, but to be like. Wanting to be a princess whether a Snow White or a Cinderella engenders wish fulfillment, but being “princeless” means more than wishes; it means being a role model.
Princesses like Adrienne aren’t cut out for towers. As she searches her bedroom for a pen she discovers a sword hidden beneath her bed, which proves (yep) much mightier when it comes to subverting stereotypes. Assisting Adrienne on her hero’s journey is Sparky, a pinkish female dragon with a shock of white hair, bracelets, a nose ring and horns banded like a barber’s pole. Sparky is whimsy incarnate, the perfect accessory. Issue #1 ends with a triumphant image of Sparky in full flight with Adrienne atop declaring her quest: ”To save my sisters!” Clarion calls do not get much clearer or more precise. Princeless is a declaration to think differently about issues of gender, equality and acceptance. Adults and worldlier teens will see the medicine in the spoonful of sugar, which is the point, after all. Younger readers, however, see an escape, a ride on a dragon and an adventure. Whitley gets to have it both ways because he trusts his readers to figure it out, he knows the kids know and the kids are alright.
Nowadays out-of-date references to 40-year-old pop songs (by say The Who or some other dinosaur rock act) are shoehorned into family-friendly features by writers, directors (or lazy reviewers) with a sly nudge-nudge that is c
alculated to appease and appeal to parents who are a reluctant party (at best) to an unfortunate majority of today’s kiddie fare. As clever as these knowing notes may be they are often clunky, dated and only add to the noise; more empty calories in already overstuffed stories with wafer-thin and agenda-driven plots. Kids aren’t the only ones who know when their being played for fools. If comedy is harder to pull off than drama than satire is near impossible. Mockery has many flavors, but cynicism makes chumps of us all. In its third issue, Princeless finds the perfect groove between satire and storytelling. Whitley reckons a crafty and sincere way to keep the story moving while working to exploit the overt sexism in comic books and popular culture.
Princeless #3 is topsy-turvy from the start. Adrienne is upside down with her bloomers blowing in the wind and in need of a plan. This being a comic book and Adrienne having a flying dragon on retainer, it’s only a panel or two before Sparky drops her through the roof of a shop where she meets Bedelia Smith, the blacksmith’s daughter. Bedelia is another sharp and sharply drawn character who talks fast and has a quick wit, Adrienne’s equal in pluck and bravura. Not surprisingly, Bedelia is the brains and brawn behind her father’s operation (for those keeping score at home, her father is a dwarf) and it just so happens that she keeps a secret showroom for the rare occasion when female royalty drop in. ”Behold, the Women Warriors collection!” says Bedelia. It’s a modest (wink wink) collection of five or so designs. Bedelia begins with ”the most popular … at least among fans of women warriors. The chain mail bra has a super industrial clasp to make sure your bosoms stay secure in the heat of battle. We call it the Sonya.” Goodwin draws Bedelia with her fingers splayed out and her mouth puckered in an ‘oooh’ as she describes the Sonya. One can hear Whitley’s growing glee as he (and Bedelia) push on to the next golden goddess, ”This is the Diana, it comes with a metal breast plate, cloth shirt, and mini tights. The tights come with or without limited metal plating and of course these darling bangles.” All idolaters should be so kind. Adrienne is also shown a “warrior princess” model that was popular a few years ago. Sadly, it’s ridiculous how quick and easy it is to make jokes about female superhero fashion, it’s child’s play, really. Adrienne finally asks the questions that everyone who has ever read a comic book asks, but has found wanting when it comes to answers: “why should a women’s armor have to show so much cleavage? Or stomach? […] Why not make real armor, which would actually be effective in a fight, for a woman warrior.” Why indeed. Adrienne ends her summation saying, “Just because I have a women’s body doesn’t mean I have to show it to everyone! Especially if I’m on a quest. Why can’t I just be a hero?” Adrienne’s goal to “save her sisters” was bigger than she knows, it’s more than a goal; it’s a philosophy and a call to arms writ large. Adrienne’s speech is, obviously, more than only an impetus to move the story along and yet, her words don’t ring false. She is asking questions common to anyone (any teen for sure) who is in the midst of a great change. Concerns (or questions) about body image are not the exclusive bugbear of teens either, everybody’s got a body and every body’s got issues. There are a lot of roots and branches when it comes to anxieties about body image, but for Adrienne (and for Whitley and company) it’s about dressing up in order to dress down the depictions of women in comic books.
Whitley takes a conspiratorial tone throughout the faux fashion show that delights as well as instructs in pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. For many young readers, this isn’t (probably) the first time that they’ve ever been exposed to the sartorial choices of such superheroes, but it may be that this is the first time that something so obvious has been pointed out to them. One can’t ‘get it’ if one doesn’t know there’s anything to be got in the first place, so it’s good to have someone on the inside. Whitley isn’t saying anything new or that hasn’t been said before. What he does is to create a conversation. In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes it’s a child who (not knowing any better) points out the vain emperor’s au natural state. Whitley gives new readers something to think about and what questions to ask when it comes to costumed heroes. So what? Princeless isn’t going to undo seventy plus years of comic book canon on its own. Yes, adding another voice to the conversation does raise awareness, especially in an amenable (and potentially influential) audience and (yes) it is more than most comic books can say, but is that enough?
It is what one does with the information one has, of course, that makes the difference. A reader who doesn’t thrill to the genuine nature of Adrienne’s request and Bedelia’s fervent enthusiasm to make the kind of armor Adrienne wants (armor fit for a hero) has either been rotted to death by sarcasm or rotten or dead or all three. Comic books are supposed to excite, to stir, to champion the private-self that spends most of the day locked away in one metaphorical tower or another. For children not yet scarred by sarcasm, Princeless is an inspiration, second sight beyond the page and into a world of imagination, a world of their own making. The ability to create is the ability to take control of something outside of one’s self. Adrienne and Bedelia can’t combat oppression, inequality or rescue anyone on their own, but by working together they’re doing more than playing dress-up, they take action; they’ve got a mission, a quest. Bedelia is a smith, a fashioner, a creator who provides structure. Adrienne is a woman with ideas. Young readers may or may not know about the innate sexism that’s built into a bra with “a super industrial clasp” or short shorts with “darling bangles,” but they are more than familiar with what can happen when people cooperate and work together. Equality requires shared experience before a mutual effort can be forged. The “Women Warriors Collection” provides the experience, but it’s not until Adrienne asks the questions about the effectiveness of armor that exposes bellies and breasts that Bedelia hits upon the idea of designing “the first line of armor for warrior women not women warriors.” Princeless primes principles of acceptance, cooperation and invention. It’s when Adrienne and Bedelia recognize the qualities (the differences) in each other that they create something new, something bigger than themselves. Call it a lesson for all ages.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this series why Princeless #3 is nominated as one of the best single issues of 2011 in the Eisner Awards. I chose to focus on the first and third issues of this series because of their esprit de corps and because of what each issue says about equality, acceptance and creativity. That’s not to say that the second and fourth issues don’t follow the same rule, they do, but each is more action-oriented whereas the first and third are more issue-oriented. The
one aspect of Princeless that didn’t work for me was the depictions of Adrienne’s mother, father and brother. The King is written as overbearing and cruel, a bit too clichéd for a story this original. The Queen does have a moment of conscience in issue #4, but it comes a little too late. Devin is the most fleshed-out of the three, but even he falls into the stereotype of a reluctant price more interested in the “loveliest bit of verse” than ruling the kingdom or sword fighting. He does try to help (to save?) his sister so he certainly has some of her good sense. Princeless is a comic book that everyone should read, but it can be a challenge to track down. Hopefully the Eisner nomination and the publication of the trade paperback with a back-up story by Jim Zub of Skullkickers fame will help to boost its profile. Princeless #1 is also available as a free download from Bleeding Cool.
I had some help — scratch that — some inspiration writing this review from an eight-year-old female critic who said in a few words what it’s taken me thousands to say. When asked if she noticed that Adrienne was a princess of color or the impracticalness of the Women Warrior collection, she told me: “So what? It doesn’t matter. She rides a dragon and saves herself. She’s cool, Dad.” See what I mean?
Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words. He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.