Matilde's QuestPhenomena Book 2 – Matilde’s Quest

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: André Lima Araújo
Letterer: Joshua Reed
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts

In my early 20s, I was really into improv and standup comedy. I’d grown up and was still living in Chicago, which had a rich tradition of both, with plenty of clubs in the city that featured weekly showcases, sometimes free on Sunday night (which was very important to my ability to attend back then). One of those was the Improv Olympic, which was smaller and less flashy than the city’s famous Second City

Inevitably at most shows I attended, I found myself laughing harder at certain performers and bits than the rest of the assembled crowd. This wasn’t an immediate thing. No, it took a while for me to get a grasp of the craft of improv, what constituted an obvious joke, and, perhaps most importantly, when a performer was doing something ineffably special, transcending the usual confines of the craft to create something as unlikely as it was personal. The whole room would be laughing, sure, but the folks laughing hardest of all were us regulars, the true sickos like me who had over-consumed the medium.

All this is to say that I’ve been chasing experiences like that in most media ever since, looking for magic instances when creators master a craft so thoroughly, that they can generate work that rewards those who are intimately familiar with a medium and its processes. It’s a rare feeling, and it’s not always found in the places you might expect, not in the award-winning movies or popular albums or buzziest comics.

It was, however, most definitely a feeling I found while reading Phenomena Book 2 – Matilde’s Quest, the new graphic novel collaboration between writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist André Lima Araújo. The solid foundation and powerful engine of this book are without a doubt the landscapes and designs laid out by Araújo, and if you read a lot of comics or have studied the medium in any serious capacity, you are going to be absolutely blown away.

This entire series (a third book is incoming) was born after the duo collaborated on work for DC Comics, and subsequently discussed what else they could do together. To hear them tell it, Araújo had a sketchbook of images and ideas he’d been tinkering with for most of his life, and they had worked together so well previously, that they decided to team-up and give that work shape, to turn it into a new trilogy of graphic novels. 

The result is an absolutely incredible aesthetic, one in which readers can find shades of Akira and The Incal, yet still find a style that feels so intricate and detailed, it could only belong to Araújo. What elevates it past those influences (and the others I’ve surely missed) is not just the command of craft, but the way the artist injects it all with a new sense of wonder and whimsy, be it through public transportation that involves floating land fish, or a rendering of the famous London Eye that is actually a giant staring Eye. Araújo is so deep into his bag here, so serious about the linework, that it feels like he’s moved past the rigor and found a new playfulness. It gives the whole book an engaging lightness that I really enjoyed.

Really, it’s just a gorgeous book, and it’s all enhanced by its scripting. While I also enjoyed this book’s predecessor, Phenomena Book 1 – The Golden City of Eyes, quite a bit for many of the same reasons, I felt this book elevating past the earlier volume, feeling confident in its worldbuilding as it drilled down compellingly on one character — Matilde. Bendis is a vocal fan and master of collaboration. You can see it just through the world class artists who work with him again and again. This book is written in an almost understated way, that lets the visual worldbuilding do the talking. It’s a perfect choice.

Overall, new readers could pick up this volume pretty easily, I think, and enjoy the designs, or get lost in the plight of the lead character (though I’ve personally never been the chaotic neutral sort to just jump right into the middle of a trilogy). But who I think will enjoy this book most of all are the folks who — like me — read (too?) many comics, and crave new work that has gone so deep into the craft, that it’s coming out the other side with material that feels indebted to all that has come before it yet still unique and surprising. 

If this review were a meme, it would be that one of the laughing sicko at the window, and I can’t think of a more ringing endorsement. If you’re serious about and well read within comics, Phenomena Book 2 – Matilde’s Quest is a work you must experience.

Phenomena Book 2 – Matilde’s Quest is available now via Abrams

Read more graphic novel reviews via The Beat!