By Dave Morris and Leo Hartas
Print Media have very sensibly decided to continue the formatting of the DFC Library with Mirabilis – the first strip from the DFC comic to see print from a non DFC publisher – and quite rightly the presentation is absolutely first class here – an oversized Euro album style hardcover that just looks and feels really impressive.
Way back now, when I first saw Mirabilis, I talked of the passing similarity to Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright – and I stay with that – just stare at the cover by Martin McKenna for a moment – a young man wearing military dress uniform, carrying antique weapons? That’s so Luther Arkwright isn’t it?
The other immediate comic reference point is in the art – I see a lot of old Epic Illustrated stuff in here, in particular echoes of Bret Blevins. Maybe, just maybe a little Bryan Talbot as well, although here I’m probably letting my Luther Arkwright comparison get the better of me.
It’s a fantastical, supernatural story, but at it’s heart Mirabilis, for all it’s supernatural trappings, is a good, old fashioned boys adventure tale, a quest across the four volumes, during the course of one miraculous year.
(The green comet that sets all the weirdness of The Year Of Wonders off, high in the sky above two duelling young men. From Mirabilis Volume 1, by Dave Morris and Leo Hartas, published by Print Media)
Mirabilis tells the tale of the “Year of Wonders“, set sometime in the past, “between Victorian and Edwardian times“, where a green comet trails across the sky, bringing in it’s wake a return to old ways, where magic and wonder are suddenly everyday occurrences. The green comet appears only once every millennia and its past appearances have been recorded throughout history – in the Mahabarata, tales of The Arabian Nights, stories of Camelot and in the myths of Hercules and Odysseus – they all mention the green comet and the wonder it trails in it’s wake.
And now, right in the middle of all this is one 17-year old lad, a Lieutenant in the Light Dragoons, who lied about his age to join up. Young Jack Ember will experience all the wonder of the green comet at first hand as he travels through Europe and beyond, on a series of adventures, all at breakneck speed, packed with mystery and danger.
But as the book opens, young Jack has no idea of what awaits him, as he’s far more concerned with the immediate problem of a duel at dawn over some girl he’s barely met:
(Again, with the duel, the dress and the glasshouse, I’m getting echoes of Arkwright. Jack Ember finds himself in a duel to kick off the Year Of Wonders in Mirabilis Volume 1)
Little does Jack know, but Estelle Meadowvane – the girl he barely met, the girl he’s fighting the duel over, and Dougie McNab – the oafish prig he’s in the duel with, will be his companions throughout this Year Of Wonder, sharing his travels to far off countries, sharing all of the incredible adventures and discovering just how amazing the comet’s effects can be.
Of course, the duel is merely the start of Jack’s problems. His entire future will be tied into the double sided coin he finds in the snow, a coin that is desired, or perhaps needed, by the Kind Gentleman, a demon dressed in mortal form, whose appearance at the duel Jack will soon regret:
(Jack catches first sight of the Kind Gentleman, and like it say – everything was going to change. From Mirabilis Volume 1)
The Kind Gentleman needs the coin that Jack found, and Jack’s poor Gran will suffer if he doesn’t – turned to snow one cold winter’s night and at risk of the next thaw.
So Jack is forced to find the coin and bring it back. But following the duel, Ember’s coat, with the coin in its pocket, is on its way to India with the rest of Jack’s regiment. The task of getting the coin back shouldn’t be that hard, except Jack has rashly resigned his commission.
So, to get back to his regiment, to get the coin, he’ll need to get back in his Colonel’s good books. And for that, he’ll need to carry out the Colonel’s last orders, to assist the Royal Mythological Society in tracking down an ancient book by a Persian astronomer that talks of the Green Comet and get it back to London. And where’s this book right now? In Instanbul, up for auction. Poor Jack.
(The required threat to set Jack on his quest across Europe in Mirabilis – as the Kind Gentleman pays Gran a visit. From Mirabilis Volume 1)
Essentially, this whole thing; the coin, the book he’s sent to get, resigning his commission, his Gran – it’s all part of the big setup, a literary device to set the quest off, to set Jack and Estelle on their journey. And it’s the journey that allows Morris and Hartas to take us through Europe, and to throw so much of its supernatural folklore into the story. In some ways it plays rather like Herge’s Tintin, Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days, or countless similar quest stories – the journey merely an excuse to add in the next exciting set piece, the next preposterous and thoroughly enjoyable obstacle to be overcome.
Just some of the perils to come in this volume and beyond include vampires, werewolves, a familiar albeit female Dr with a magic transformative potion, plant-human monster hybrids, chess playing giant robots, missing scientists, bizarre murders, a suitably European police inspector pursuing a mystery onboard the Orient Express, a Pterandon over Paris (… or possibly a Pteradactyl? And possibly, if I’m not reading too much into this, a nod to Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec?).
There’s a lot of adventure and a lot of weirdness to be enjoyed in Mirabilis. And I didn’t even get to mention Jack’s possible guardian angel, a devious old wizard going by the name of Gus (not his real name of course, but one Jack gave him in dreams). Or maybe he’s just insane, like the guards at Bethlehem Hospital think? No-one, possibly not even Gus himself is quite sure.
(Madman? Guardian Angel? Something more? No-one’s sure, not yet. Gus / Talesin wont stay in his cell for long though, and from then on he’s going to pop up whenever Jack least expects. From Mirabilis Volume 1.)
Mirabilis succeeds in so many ways, both reading it as an adult and thinking about how the young readers in the school library will enjoy it. It’s fast, it’s packed with adventure, packed with intriguing characters, old and new, familiar and slightly altered. Indeed, there’s so much going on in Mirabilis that you may be thinking that it could be overly cluttered. But it isn’t, each new piece of the quest, each new twist, each step derailing Jack’s mission, is introduced in good time, never overwhelming, always adding to the excitement.
Volume 1 is a thrilling adventure and a thoroughly enjoyable tale, far meatier and involved than I expected. In that it’s got echoes again of Tintin, and despite its complexity and length, it manages to keep the thrills and enjoyment going throughout.
Thanks to Dave Morris’ kindness, I not only have the hardback volume of Winter from Print Media, but the softback self published versions of Volume 1 and Volume 2 for inclusion in our school library. And I feel a little guilty saying it, but Volume 2 didn’t impress as much as Volume 1. A little too much repetition in the quest meant I felt a little too jaded by it all and Hartas’ artwork does, by mid point, loosen up and there are panels and pages where it all seems too rushed, where the precise, intricate details of Volume 1 become too simplified. It’s never terrible by any means, but it suffers, just like most extended tales do, from a saggyness in the middle sections. (Mirabilis isn’t alone in that – almost every extended narrative I know, whether it’s Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, Gaiman’s Sandman, Ennis’ Preacher or countless others has bits in the middle that just felt superfluous and overly drawn out.)
But that’s Volume 2. This is really meant to be concerned with the first Volume – and that was a great, tight, fun adventure. I’m intrigued (as I know Dave Morris is) to see what the children make of it.
Mirabilis runs to 4 volumes in total, with Volume 2 coming in hardback from Print Media later in 2011. For more on Mirabilis, head for the Year Of Wonders website and for more details on Print Media head to the Strip Magazine blog.