Moro Rogers's City in the Desert is a very entertaining debut from a new cartoonist. Irro and Hari, two monster hunters from the town of Kevala suddenly find themselves out of work when a shady religious group called "The Way of Sacred Peace" comes into town, promising a permanent end to the frequent monster attacks.
Because this is the first of a series of graphic novels, Rogers allows herself to take her time telling the story, really building up her characters and this world they inhabit. This first volume is just an appetizer — we get our main characters, we get some bad guys, and we get some looks into the people around the town of Kevala, but Rogers is alluding to deeper connections and relationships between her characters, setting things up for what looks to be something of an ages-spanning epic in the coming volumes. Really, all this book is missing is a map on the inside cover, the almost-universal signal for "Caution: You're About To Get Hip-Deep Into A Fantasy Story. "
Rogers employs a two-tone coloring scheme that keeps each panel looking uncomplicated, but her brushstroke cartooning style keeps her characters expressive and the movement and environments fluid. She has a very economic style, but don't let the simplicity of her linework sucker you into thinking City in the Desert is a facile, all ages affair. I mean, there's a lot of cute adventure stuff in there, sure, but Rogers also manages to work in some pretty raw violence and some theological and ethical conflicts, and the juxtaposition of the cute and funny elements with the monster-hunting violence and the more weighty moral and existential dilemmas is what gives the book momentum and keeps the story so compulsively readable.
For instance, our main characters, the ones we'd previously been laughing along with on their swashbuckling monster hunts through the desert, are pretty much making their livelihood from the suffering of their fellow townsfolk. When a more or less permanent solution to the monster attacks is offered, Rogers confronts us with the old ethics dilemma of the good of few versus the good of many. It's an interesting dilemma to bring up, one that doesn't have a clear answer, but I think Rogers ends up undercutting the message here and making it a bit of a non-question in two respects: 1) Monster hunting looks AWESOME, and our heroes Irro and Hari seem to be stand-up citizens, and 2) We know that the dudes proposing the alternative to monster-hunting have some yet-to-be-revealed and almost certainly sinister ulterior motives. The ethics lesson is over pretty quickly, which I think is unfortunate, but I'm forgiving because while it does look like a detail that Rogers felt she had to address, it never feels like it's supposed to be the focus of this series. The real meat of this story looks to be about humanity's relationship with their god, Iriaze, particularly the question of why humanity bothers worshipping a god that not only gives them so little, but also is responsible for making the monsters that plague them (I told you this stuff gets heavy).
It's great to see a project as ambitious as City in the Desert, and it's even better to see a new cartoonist hitting all the story beats she's laid out with such precision. Rogers has the difficulty of juggling several different tones, but she does it with enough skill that each of the disparate elements work to complement each other, creating a very satisfying first volume.
Geoffrey Lapid lives in Brooklyn where he writes about comics and gets older every day. You can follow him on twitter at @gwarrenl, and check out some comics he's made at strongconqueror.com. He's thinking about getting a bike.