Writer: Frankee White
Art and Letters: Adam Markiewicz
Publisher: Caliber Comics
It’s not often we get stories where we’re allowed to disagree so completely with the main character while also finding ways to sympathize with them. Frankee White and Adam Markiewicz have done just that with Broken Bear, which has become one of the most delightfully infuriating and compelling comics I’ve read in recent years.
There’s a kind of challenge that comes with reading this graphic novel and there’s nowhere to hide from it as we’re invited to pass heavy judgment on its characters. Problem is, it all might end up saying more about us than about them, especially when it comes to the protagonist, a young woman called Selm.
Broken Bear follows this still maturing warrior as she sets forth to conquer helplessness, literally. Selm wants to eradicate the idea that nothing can ever be done in certain situations from her existence. Without going into detail and to avoid spoilers, her drive surely enough lands her on some very tough spots, with important decisions to be made.
To my surprise, White and Markiewicz took it upon themselves to allow Selm to fail. Her decisions aren’t always what we consider to be the “right” ones. In fact, there’s an interesting play with how much of our egos actually drive our moral choices. There were times where I saw eye to eye with Selm, whereas other times I felt like pushing her off the nearest cliff. I was delighted, infuriated, and then delighted again. It’s an impressive feat. White’s script is that good.
Markiewicz’s visual worldbuilding is equally impressive. We go from swamps to witch houses, make a stop or two close to monster-infested woods and even visit a mystical city. Each setting is distinctive but it carries a classic Dungeons & Dragons feel with it. The creatures that inhabit this world, on the other hand, take more to the horror side of things.
Each monster is grotesque but they are not empty vessels out for a quick action sequence. They do their own share of the worldbuilding. They look so menacing that, in turn, they make Broken Bear’s world feel more dangerous in the process. In many cases, these creatures felt like riffs on more traditional designs, but the end result stands on its on two legs, or four.
The horror is not mild either, nor is its violence. Everything is met head on but never at the expense of the story. Each of the story’s beats fall into place accordingly, and when they lead up to violence you can feel the full weight of its consequences once all is said and done.
Markiewicz also does an excellent job in capturing White’s morally-troubled protagonist. Selm looks angry, like she has something to prove. She’s stubborn at times and Markiewicz makes sure we know this just by looking at her.
A.H.G.’s colors add to the world’s dangerous vibes. Each setting has its own color pallet, but it all serves the larger look and feel of the book. Of note are the colors in the mystical city segment, with opaque pinks and muted browns and greys creating a place that is the opposite of Tolkien but perhaps closer to Willow (1988).
There are some dialogue choices here and there that did take me out of the experience. It’s mostly due to moments where a certain turn of phrase or brief character exchanges felt more contemporary and thus out of place. I found it strange given that the story tries and succeeds in keeping that fantasy feel almost all the way through, with little reference to present verbal reactions. This is not a common occurrence and it doesn’t ruin the experience, but someone invested in authentic fantasy voices might feel a disturbance here and there in the latter part of the book.
Broken Bear is an impressive book with more than a few surprises up its sleeves. While this is White’s debut graphic novel, it’s evident White speaks comic very well. Building a character you’ll hate, love, disagree with, and agree with all at once is no easy task. In fact, it’s made me want to read more stories with characters that challenge me just as Selm did. There aren’t a lot of them out there, so make sure to spend some time with this one.