Afar, by Leila del Duca and Kit Seaton

In a future wasteland, a family of four contends with familiar obstacles to make ends meet, eventually leaving the teenage children to care for themselves while their parents travel to find work just as their eldest discovers a wondrous ability and their youngest gets into trouble. Leila del Duca’s Afar draws from many recognizable sources and lovingly twists them into something unexpected that should reach new audiences. The parents, facing both the father’s unreliability and the mother’s bouts of depression, recall overmatched caregivers from fairytales whose struggles open the door to adventure for their offspring as well as well-meaning but often helpless parents from emotionally realistic sci-fi young adult graphic novels like Space Dumplins. The tale woven for Boetema and her brother Inotu is interesting in that it could easily play out in a more familiar world; the specific sci-fi elements have very little bearing on their relationship or how they interact with their world. They could just as easily be siblings left to their own devices in a contemporary city, forced to flee due to a chance encounter with a less exotic gang, leading to conflict with a corrupt public figure with a non-cyborg bodyguard, and deal with mutual alienation arising from her having a non-metaphysical talent that give her access to a more metaphorical different world.

The story is well-paced, and I often found myself wondering how the plot would manage to resolve in the number of pages left. It doesn’t tie up all the threads, clearly leaving room for another volume or more, but it does get our protagonists to a satisfying place after their journey. The characters feel authentic as brother and sister, and the adults are neither cartoonishly obtuse nor improbably credulous; rather, common motives of self-interest and social norms direct their actions believably.

Boetema’s astral projection sends her sleeping mind to many worlds, some populated by beings clearly inspired by familiar species, while others find her afloat as a vaporous cloud-person or inhabiting an Escheresque rock-giant. Kit Seaton’s art is adaptable to all these, displaying expressions of bewilderment, fear, and awe on alien faces of every description, even when they have more or fewer parts than we’re familiar with. Scale and focus are used to great effect to shift the tone from character to character, or from Boetema’s native world to other realms. Panel layouts vary and are used to convey the context of their content. Earthbound events are shown in panel structures with sharp borders, accommodating the flow of the story with varied shapes and sizes. When Boetema leaves her body, her brief visits are often shown in panels finished in a different manner: sometimes with borderless panels fading into the white gutter, other times with a hard edge against a black gutter. Her longer stays are shown in much the same way as when she’s in her own form. The characters’ own tales get unique treatments, too; when a story arises within this story, it’s shown in rigidly regular panels, an elementary grid highlighting the artifice of storytelling.

The character-driven narrative combines with tropes familiar to readers of young adult urban fiction and the complexions of the main characters to openly appeal to audiences that might not otherwise pick up a sci-fi graphic novel; the post-industrial future setting and fantastic sci-fi elements, in turn, make a similar entree to comic readers less likely to pick up a book featuring brown faces than green ones. Both potential readers are in for a treat.