You don’t hear enough about Mexican artist Tony Sandoval. Well, I don’t. And I’ve looked, I really have. His stories and sensibilities are unique, his artwork stunning in its layering and animation, and his ability to mix the dark with the irreverent in a way that isn’t either cloying or mercenary makes his work accessible but not pandering. He’s been nominated for three Eisners, but there’s not a lot of excited chatter about his work. There should be.
In his recent graphic novel Watersnakes, we meet Mila during her summer vacation. She has a secret wooded spot that she likes to swim and it’s there that she encounters Agnes, who approaches her, startling her and comparing her with the water snake evoked in the title.
A friendship ensues, but we aren’t quite sure what kind of friendship this is going to be. Agnes is a mysterious girl who says mysterious things, and it’s hard to tell how much we should take her seriously. But as they get to know each other better, and Mila listens further to Agnes’s tales, we find out that the truth isn’t quite what we expect, but at the same time, more fantastical than we could imagine.
I won’t give away too many story details because much of the beauty is in how these unfold, and in the way Sandoval employs unique imagery to build his fantasy world. Mila will become involved in something beyond her world. She will have to face things she never imagined existed. She will be challenged.
Part of the challenge of reading Watersnakes is trying to find a reference point for what you’re reading. He mixes contemporary aspects with classically macabre ones that seem more appropriate for a Grimm Brothers story. This clash of styles is rendered in a precious and layered presentation of large-headed kids that, especially in Watersnakes, are a little like Kewpie dolls all grown up and more than a little bit like Bratz dolls. But this gives them an otherworldly presence that places them somewhere in-between the dueling sensibilities and creates something quite singular.
The last time I encountered Sandoval’s work was 2014’s Doomboy, which used heavy metal and outsider art in a similarly strange combination which, when combined with Sandoval’s unique artwork, also presented a magical setting that co-existed within contemporary touchpoints. It was sweet and dark in the same way as Watersnakes.
Whereas so many fantasies these days are ego-stroking for those in their teenage years — you turn 13 and find out you’re actually special and really a wizard or fairy or whatever — Sandoval’s story is nothing of the sort. It’s less about who you’ve always been but no one understood and more about who you are becoming, what you can do to move forward in your emotional evolution, and how you can do it in service of other human beings.
It’s no spoiler to say that Mila has never been anything other than Mila. She doesn’t have to be a magical being, she just has to be herself to be special, and that’s a fantastic message to pass along to a reader of any age. To do it through the scope of someone with Sandoval’s skill just heightens the experience and shows that YA fantasy, like Mila herself, doesn’t have to be a realm of trend following, but instead a totem for trend-building.