By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
I would call Mae a blend of Doctor Who and The Wizard of Oz, with a little Harry Potter sprinkled on top. Our creator/writer/artist Gene Ha makes a point to name drop all three in the pages of Mae, Vol. 1. So I imagine he’d be okay with that statement.
What’s more, Mae has a lot in common with those stories. It takes a seemingly average young person and thrusts them into a world of fantasy and adventure. Nine years after Mae’s sister Abbie mysteriously vanishes, she abruptly reappears telling stories about another world. Monsters, talking cats, and a price on her head from the House Zemetrasi. To Mae, it’s all beyond belief. But Abbie has been followed, and their father is soon kidnapped. Now Mae must follow her sister into a place unlike any she’s ever known, and become the hero she never knew she could be.
It’s always fun whenever an artist, much less one the caliber of Gene Ha, gets to just cut loose and create. The most appealing aspect of Mae, for my money, is seeing all the eccentric fantasy elements and characters Ha designs. The robotic, and very tall Rytir Kazisvet, who kidnaps Mae and Abbie’s father, is tremendous. I’m also rather fond of the fuzzy little creature in a hoodie that comes after Abbie early in the story (shown below). And then you’ve got the Dukes, four human heads which all share the same robotic body. It all feels like we’re just scratching the surface, and future issues could bring us anything.
There’s something to be said for the way Abbie and Mae are dressed. Both outfits are very distinct, and in a broad sense allow you to get their characters almost instantly. Abbie’s outfit consists of a fez and a Napoleonic War style outfit. It feels very adventurous, and the fez seems very much like a nod to Matt Smith’s time on Doctor Who. Mae, on the other hand, is wearing a scarf (a nod to the Fourth Doctor?), glasses, hat, and coat. It’s a look for a modern woman who’s well-read, and isn’t afraid to flaunt her geekiness.
It’s refreshing that Mae is our title character and main hero here. She’s a fangirl, but she’s not depicted as social awkward or an oddball. In essence, she’s just an average girl who happens to love her some Doctor Who and Harry Potter. While her lines about such things usually come off contrived, she feels like the most genuine and real character in the book.
Initially, I couldn’t figure out why this book reminded me so much of Toy Story. You can argue it evokes memories of the human-centric Pixar movies in general, a la The Incredibles. But Toy Story was what came to mind for me. Then when you look closer, you realize Ha’s pencilling, shading, and inking make the figures pop to the point that they look three-dimensional. This effect also does wonders for the creatures Ha designs. Under someone else’s pencil, that little fuzzy guy with the sunglasses might look like fairly generic fantasy character. But drawn by Ha, he almost looks lively enough to be one of the Muppets. Albeit, a fairly violent Muppet.
On the downside, there are a few points where characters look static, and the image feels artificial as a result. The best example in the book can be seen in the lower lefthand portion of the image at right. Abbie, as she’s laughing, looks detached and unnatural. Though I will say the adjacent panels look lovely.
Mae marks one of Gene Ha’s only stints as a writer. To say the least, it’s ambitious. These are his characters and his vision, which he actually raised the funds for on Kickstarter. The world he’s created has a lot of depth, and has a sort of Oz quality to it. But a times it’s a struggle to figure out exactly how it works. It’s clearly influenced by bits and pieces of our world, or “old Earth” as they call it.
Ha starts small, first setting the story in the girls’ home in small-town Indiana. We then spend an issue in a city in our fantasy world, before we expand and find out what sort of politics drive it. In issue #4, Mae and Abbie sneak into the castle of the House Zemetrasi, searching for Rytir Kazisvet and their father. There’s talk of a war with someone called the “Obruoni,” and a quest for the “technology of the ancients.” It’s all very vague. Who are these people? And what do they want? And why? It’s not that there’s a lack of interest, just a lack of comprehension. Heck, does this fantasyland even have a name?
In the bonus material included for this book, Ha says he avoided exploring the setting and the alternate history because it got in the way of the larger adventure. But there’s always something to be said for context. There’s some quality adventuring on these pages, but it feels like a piece of this story is missing.
Mae also presents a challenge I’ve never come across before: The names of certain people and places are hard to pronounce. It’s tough to even sound them out mentally. The Dukes are collectively called “Nehynouci Vojvodove.” And the city they visit is called “Krunyrves.” I get the idea that another world is going to have a different sort of dialect. But at least words like Oz, Gallifrey, and Hogwarts are easy to wrap your mind around.
Paulina Ganucheau tags in for issue #6, giving us a standalone Abbie story. Our supplemental material also includes a nice little tale from Mae’s school days by Danny Busiek and Sally Jane Thompson. Neither advance the primary narrative, but they offer an intriguing look at the world of Mae through an alternate lens. The same can be said for the series of pin-ups we get from the likes of Amanda Conner, Philip Tan, and Yanick Paquette. Gene Ha obviously has plenty of friends on the comic book A-list.
In the end, I’d call this first volume of Mae as “beautifully frustrating.” Gene Ha’s art is gorgeous, and it’s fascinating to see what he creates here. We’ve also got two delightfully strong female leads. But it feels like our story is incomplete. Still, perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Ha is that despite my frustrations, I’m still interested to see what’s next for our young heroines. I’m hopeful they have many more adventures to come.
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