by Stjepan Šejić and Ron Marz
If only there were a van large enough to have the entirety of this comic adorning its fibreglass frame. Alas, Dodge’s current offerings are painfully inadequate and deny us all of the appropriate means to display the epic glory of the world Ravine. What’s undeniable about this work, is the sheer passion that birthed it. Evident on every page of Šejić’s first creator-owned work is the enthusiasm and desire to tell this high fantasy story and shape the world it takes place in. After an eleven-year incubation period, Stjepan Šejić, together with Witchblade collaborator Ron Marz, invite you to delve deep into a tale about destiny; those who shape it and those that look to defeat it.
A kingdom’s unity is being tested, a shaky alliance is under siege from both within and outside its borders. The growing political influence of the religion of Damanul, centered on an actual living God entombed in a mountain, plays an unknown role in the machinations of a mad former king of immeasurable power. All the while two young Wanderers, one a spirited dragon-rider hiding (and hiding from) her true identity and the other a shrewd, charming thief looking for his final score, have their paths intertwine to play an important role neither of them are at all aware of. Calling the events of this volume “world-building” would be giving it short shrift; it’s more akin to life-giving. There are huge ideas being introduced left and right, like the weapon tree or the stages of dragon maturation or the mechanics of the gears found in an artificial leg or the entire mythological political happenings of a multitude of diverse races or…look, there is a lot going on. Stop and look in the background of panels and you’ll occasionally notice a living, breathing world populated by other creatures with their own stories to tell. The greatest success of their combined storytelling is the ability to flood your senses with all this information without it ever feeling overwhelming. The prologue is a bit clunky and cliché, but what it sets up is vital to what comes later. The plot, and it’s multitude of subplots, is paced to a degree that it rarely stops to explain how the world works, it just develops itself behind the actions of the characters. It entices the reader to pay attention if they want to, to flesh out the often odd rules of this world, but puts the characters decisively in the foreground. The only exception, the only time you ever feel like you’re being interrupted, is early on when our young dragon-rider (or dragoon, for the PC-minded) must awkwardly read a book resulting in two info-heavy text pages that feel out of place despite being littered with dragons and magic orbs. That one example is the exception to what is otherwise a masterfully well-paced narrative.
Šejić and Marz craft a story that is firmly rooted in traditional fantasy tropes, but lovingly develop characters that transcend that genre’s scope. There are the requisite dragons, archers, knights, and sorcery, sure, but there’s playfulness to the main characters that are as recognizable to fans of Brian K. Vaughn as they are to George R.R. Martin aficionados. Nowhere is this more evident than with the two Wanderers, Stein and Lynn. While we’re told they both play an imperative role in shaping the path for all the world’s inhabitants, both feel as real and grounded with universally understood emotions of doubt, ambition, regret, solitude and humor. Lynn in particular is well developed and aptly handled, not being limited to simply being the female version of Stein or a damsel in distress. The supporting cast of characters are equally well done, being appropriately ominous or comical without feeling like cardboard cut-out, perhaps in part to a lack of “Prithee, my fair maiden”-esque language in lieu of much more natural speech throughout.
Stjepan Šejić’s art is awe-inspiring. He leaves no doubt how much he cares, how invested he is in these characters and this world. It is as though the Legend of Zelda and Led Zeppelin were concentrated into ink and bled directly onto the page. From pencil to inks to colors, it is an immersive experience with details everywhere: patterns on armor, textures of fabrics, individual dragon scales. There’s never any question as to the texture of things in this world or their relation to one another. Panels are balanced well, with splash pages having exactly the intended epic effect when used. Šejić also manages to largely avoid the stiffness commonly associated with this photorealistic style with soft facial expressions and just the right amount of animated ticks, a smirk here or a bit lower lip. The art still occasionally does fall prey to moments of feeling as though these are live action still-frames with superimposed dialogue, but they are few and far between. The digital effects are omnipresent yet surprisingly subtle (most glaring instances are essentially the magic effects of the swords in the prologue) and always complimented with a painter’s touch. The art reinforces the need to take your time with this book. This is not a style that appeals to everyone on first glance, but it begs to be examined closely in order to fully appreciate how much care has been put into this project by a driven pair of creators.
If you’re not a normally a fan of fantasy stories, do not write Ravine off as just another sword and sorcery questing book. There is more than enough rich characterization, wholly original ideas, intriguing thematic motivations and stunning art to appeal to fans of virtually any genre. It is as alive with kinetic energy as any fire breathing dragon found within and one deserving of your attention.