Propaganda’s UK Manga adventure conludes: Emma Vieceli’s Dragon Heir
by Emma Vieceli with Andrew Ruddick
I knew Emma Vieceli first as the artist on Violet in the DFC but she’s been making Dragon Heir since 2001at Sweatdrop Studios as a pure labour of love. It was actually through meeting Emma Vieceli that this whole thing; of reviewing UK based Manga (even though uniquely unqualified to do so) came about. We meet at Leed’s Thought Bubble Con where she was good enough to find time and energy late in the day to do a sketch of Molly as a teenager that absolutely made our day.
(Emma Viecelli’s Violet, from the pages of the DFC)
But despite feeling really bad about it, since she’d been so nice to us that day, I started reading Dragon Heir Volume 1 and found myself utterly lost in a too complicated plot and interchangeable characters. But I sat up with it late one night and just read on, having to really concentrate to keep up with it through the first couple of issues. But then something strange happened around the halfway point. Suddenly I was actually enjoying it. Suddenly the characters made sense and now that I’d learnt to distinguish them I was enjoying the interplay between them. Confusion was gone and in it’s place was a desire to get to the end, to see it through and to find out what happened to them all. I can safely say that Emma’s Dragon Heir won me over.
I really think that the main problem with those initial episodes is that they were done many years ago, around 2000/2001 when Emma was still sickeningly young. And as such, they should have been no more than try-outs, first attempts at the story that she would develop when she was old enough and skilled enough to make it work properly. But sadly, she was a little too talented too young and went ahead and released these first issues. If they would have been inconsequential, throw-away stories that would eventually lead into her epic saga it would have been okay, but Emma didn’t take this route. For her the first couple of issues are the point where she launches herself and the reader into this epic tale of the Dragon Heirs, living in a world where the spirits govern all. We very quickly learn of the prophecy of four White Dragons, four Black Dragons, of Key Bearers and Spirit Binders and much, much more. A bit too much to take in at this stage to be honest.
Dragon Heir is a classical quest saga. Our hero, Protus, is one of four mythical Dragon Heirs; human hosts each with one quarter of the last dragon’s spirit. These Dragon Heirs each receive aspects of the dragon so we have: The Protective Spirit, The Wise Spirit, The Fighting Spirit and the Empathic Spirit. But this time, something went wrong and eight spirits were created, four form the White Dragon of the prophecy but the other four form the Black Dragon; something that should not exist. This is the saga of the Dragon Heirs journey to discover each other and to fulfil the prophecy. You can really go two ways with the story; complete mocking incredulity or a happy acceptance of it as a form of mythic folk tale. I don’t know my Japanese or Chinese mythology at all well, but I can at least say that it feels suitably authentic and that was enough for me to get into the tale, albeit rather late.
(Emma Vieceli’s art from Dragon Heir issue 1: too much too young really. Much better is to come)
Having finished the book, I discovered that she’s included a series of character bios at the back. The bios give very little of the plot away so I’d actually recommend skipping backwards and forwards to them if you feel somewhat lost at times and need a reminder of exactly which elegant, androgynous being you’re looking at because, although Emma’s art early on is lovely, it’s just too indistinct to really mark out her characters and make you understand them.
Yet despite writing all of that, I’d still really encourage you to seek this out. If you’re already a Manga fan then I’m certain you’ll love it. It has a classical Manga feel to it, of ancient magical times, spirit-worlds, mages and venerable warriors but if, like me, you’re perhaps a little rusty on the Manga thing, it’s a look at a creator struggling with a tale she simply has to tell and a chance to watch an artist suddenly find her voice halfway through a work. It was a real surprise to me upon finishing it at just how enjoyable and exciting I’d found it after making the effort to get into it. We’ll just put the early stumbles down to inexperience.
Because at that halfway point it all seems to come together. The story gels, the characters make a lot more sense and the art just gets so much better, until we’re looking at some really well crafted, impressively laid out and just plain pretty as all hell pages:
(From Dragon Heir issue 6. An amazing improvement, wouldn’t you agree? Art by Emma Viecelli)
I suppose in an ideal world Emma would head back and re-do the early issues, hopefully without losing the freshness of the work but making it sharper, more clearly defined. I doubt this is going to happen though and I think we’re just going to have to accept Dragon Heir as flawed. Successfully flawed perhaps?
Because despite the early teething trouble, once Emma has found her voice in the second half of the book, it’s a real page turner to the end. Disappointingly, the end isn’t really the end, merely the end of the first stage of the journey of the four white dragon heirs. For the rest of the story we’re going to have to wait for Emma to find the time to do it. But I have a feeling this one’s such a labour of love that she’ll make time somewhere. And it will be well worth it when she does, so far she’s put out just one more episode in comic form: Dragon Heir # 7. But pics from issue 8 are on her Flickr page so their is hope for more soon.
(Luscious full colour work on Image Comics’ Tori Amos inspired Comic Book Tattoo. Art by Emma Vieceli, colours by Faye Yong.)
Her other recent work; proof indeed that she’s getting better and better includes Violet for the DFC, Precious Things from Comic Book Tattoo and finally her sterling work on the latest book in the Manga Shakespeare series; Much Ado About Nothing. Her artwork from that just looks gorgeous, developing more depth and texture to really make the page a thing of loveliness:
(Emma Viecelli art from the Manga Shakespeare graphic novel: Much Ado About Nothing, due out in February 2009, published by Self Made Hero.)
And with this review, that’s our little journey through the UK produced Manga of Sweatdrop Studios over with. Like I said in the first post about it, I really didn’t know what to expect as Manga was something I really hadn’t read that much of. But overall, I’m glad I got to see this stuff and I think you should keep an eye out for it as well.
Richard Bruton. (And yes, I realise that Dragon Heir is probably more Manwha than Manga, but I’m still new at this Manga thing – give me a break folks!)