By Sylviane Corgiat and Laura Zuccheri
A dying world; a young girl’s insatiable thirst for revenge; a crestfallen former soldier turned hermit; and the appearance of four legendary swords that turn nearly all who touch them into glass. The Swords of Glass isn’t so much an epic as it is the chronicle of an enchanting, crumbling world’s cycle as seen through the lens of one girl’s entire, determined life. It’s an amalgam of teasingly familiar cultures, textures, and dreams that entices a surreal comfort with every turn of the page. To put it simply: The Swords of Glass is wonder incarnate. Sylviane Corgiat and Laura Zuccheri have crafted a work that blend the unbridled imagination and charm of Miyazaki with Jodorowsky and Final Fantasy in a package that is thoroughly humanistic and meticulously detailed. You will get lost in these pages and you will never want to find your way out.
One of the more endearing aspects to The Swords of Glass is the complete lack of explanation as to the specifics of the setting; where are we? When are we? What’s the history of these utterly bizarre, yet familiar creatures that wander about with nonchalance and their muppet-like features? Corgiat and Zuccheri thrust you into this world without warning, but provide a life preserver in the form of thoroughly engrossing visuals. Right from the start, there’s this element of a cultural composite present in the character designs and architecture. There are trace aspects of what we would consider to be traditional Central American, North American, European and Japanese dress, all combined and accented with a tinge of something alien. What is clear immediately, beyond the fact that it’s stunning, is that Corgiat and Zuccheri are a symbiotic storytelling tandem. The confluence of textual narrative and visual presentation/progression flows without a stutter throughout, nowhere more so than the opening pages wherein we are introduced to the fantastical and the grounded.
From the inner depths of a dying sun, four mysterious bursts of light are sprung forth and come to a thunderous rest across this unknown world. One of which finds itself lodged within the sacred stone of a small village led by a Chief eager to rouse his people to fight back against their outside oppressors. The object reveals itself as a weapon, a sword, that turns all who touch it to glass save for the Chief’s daughter, Yama. It begins here like a fairy tale with fear, murder, mystery and a sword in the stone. From here, we span decades and miles on a journey of vengeance and discovery of both the self and of a time and place far more vast than initially imagined. There is a legend, deciphered from a dead language known only to the most mystically inclined, that speaks of four swords that when assembled shall lead to salvation from a dying world via a doorway. Corgiat provides the basic conceit, namely four wayward souls shall find magical weapons of salvation. It’s what happens in between that’s magic.
Originally produced as four individual volumes, the plot moves effortlessly between each while still providing ostensible cliffhangers in parts. Corgiat manages to maintain the established sense of fantasy even when taking brief respites and asides to focus on character development and broader social commentary. Environmentalism, socioeconomic class divides, and burgeoning seeds of revolution are all touched upon deftly and intelligently with a light hand that prevents any feelings of head-hammering. No, the real heart lies within the development of Yama from traumatized girl to, well, a traumatized (but focused!) woman and her complicated relationship with her mentor and father figure, Miklos. It’s reminiscent at times of the relationship between Léon and Mathilda in The Professional, at least from Miklos’ perspective, but Corgiat has burdened him with his own forlorn ghosts to bear. All of the characters found within are multi-dimensional in their interactions with each other, but each is essentially driven by a single motivator; be it to save a loved one, to avenge a loss, to fulfill a destined obligation, or to preserve life. It’s a balancing act and Corgiat does it well without betraying the more whimsical adventure tone of the overall narrative. There’s a grand vision at play and that’s what instills the constant sense of awe, but it’s the journey over years and lands where you fall in love with the smaller cogs of the giant story machine that is The Swords of Glass.
For all that praise heft upon the story itself, this book could be completely devoid of text of any sort and still be considered a masterpiece thanks to the art of Laura Zuccheri. Absolutely breathtaking on every level, Zuccheri presents a fully realized and magical world rife with ornate and tactile life. Zuccheri’s line work is amongst some of the cleanest you are likely to ever see and her ability to convey emotion with a flared eye or restrained smirk is impeccable. She renders characters with such ease, in a style that Western audience might find akin to Jamie McKelvie, so as to belie the intricacies of every stone in a wall, every thread of fabric, every cragged wrinkle of tree bark, every embossed design in armor, every….you get the idea. It’s all there. Nothing is filler. The way Zuccheri manipulates scale and scope from one panel to the next is extraordinary and that fine eye for detail never wavers between the two. Beyond just that indelible ability to highlight the minute and grand evenly, the part of Zuccheri’s art that will truly enrapture and entice is the design.
The creatures that inhabit this myriad-cultured land are wonderful hybrids of familiar animals, pastiches of our own history’s Griffons and Chimeras, but with that playful Henson sensibility. The clothing is where that blending of traditions really stand out, with knight’s armor that combines the lacquered iron plates of the samurai with the heavily embossed decoration of medieval Europe and the block-shaped adornments and face paint of the Aztecs. Oh and then there’s some stretched out face masks they wear on their heads that look like Ghost Face from Spirited Away. Honestly, it’s like the movie Dune got together with Square Enix and gave birth to something new altogether. The architecture of the massive cities is comparable to the most massive of those found in The Lord of the Rings and each one begs you to dive deeper into their labyrinthine, yet charmingly practical layouts.
Wrap all this together in a package blanketed by some of the must lush, vivid colors you’re likely to find in any book and you have an engrossing graphical experience akin to anything you’ll see in theaters. So many of the backgrounds are richly textured to a still-life degree with brushed applications of color that strike a sharp, but complementary balance to the flatter, though equally saturated foreground characters. It’s a wonderful dynamic and one that makes this work so engrossing. As magnificently rendered as it all is (and again, it really is) the texturing of color is what sends this work into the stratosphere, dying sun be damned.
Are there any negatives to this work, you ask? As with any translated work, there are some clunkier bits of dialogue that come with getting lost in translation, but there are far fewer examples of this here than in many others. The ending will initially come across as a bit unexpected considering all that has come before, but the thematic groundwork was certainly laid even if the method of its application inserts itself awkwardly. It fits and in many ways feels more like an epilogue than a true-blue ending that perhaps could have been more poetic if it had been left a little more vague, but still provides a lyrical bookend.
The Swords of Glass does not just dazzle fans of fantasy or Studio Ghibli or RPG gamers; it dazzles fans of stories. For anyone who ever got wrapped up in a classic fairy tale, this book delivers and then some. With art that will have you flipping back through the pages long after you’ve finished reading, this is a work that’s charm stays dancing in your head. Adventure, heartbreak, magic, mystery, tragedy, and hope; whatever your poison, The Swords of Glass is good for what ails you and provides you with an escape worth getting lost in until the sun dies out.