Stravaganza: The Queen in the Iron Mask Volume 1
Story and Art by Akihito Tomi
Translation by Zack Davission
Lettering by Marshall Dillon
Edited by M. Chandler
Stravaganza opens with a few pages of purely visual, wordless storytelling. On the opening page, we peek into this world from behind the brush of the forest to see a water sprite jump into the lake, watching the scene unfold as if we were candid observers invited into this experience. We watch the sprite gracefully drip her toe on the top of the lake and weightlessly bounce off as if it were a trampoline. We watch the Nymph and her friend playfully wade through and merge with each other, their fluid forms able to enter in and out and encompass one another. They play, wading out of form and formlessness, able to integrate with each other and the world surrounding them. It’s a scene of nature, tranquility, and peace, and it is no surprise that as soon as our Princess enters the scene that the Nymphs disappear. The readers were invited to witness these characters and this moment, an honor denied the heroine of the story herself. It says something about the nature of nature; its beauty is fully appreciated by those who observe respectfully from a distance and denied to those who decide to make themselves a part of it, forcefully imposing themselves into a world in which they aren’t welcome.
One of Stravaganza’s greatest strengths is its ability to say much with so little. Not much context is needed for the story; the setting, events, and characters are experienced, not exposited. There is little table-setting beyond stating there is a forest that is a part of a kingdom, and from there we learn about everything else simply by seeing how events unfold in the comic. Dialogue is sparse, and there are rarely more than a few short sentences in any given panel. Characters don’t exposit lore about other characters or the world; the dialogue is naturalistic, and conversations never feel didactic, as if someone is relearning something they should already know for the reader’s benefit. There are many sequences where Tomi lingers on an activity of a moment, like one particular six-page sequence early on that just shows Vivian sneak into a secret passageway, traverse in the dark downstairs and through hallways until finally arriving in her room, undressing, and flopping into bed. Sequences like these embody the manga’s artistic ethos, placing emphasis on the art and the flow of action between panels. Starvaganza truly embraces comics as a means of visual storytelling and takes advantage of the strengths pictures have over words in delivering information to readers. Not much needs to be said because Tomi trusts in their reader’s ability to grasp the world as presented to them and to learn more by watching the story unfold.
As gorgeous as the manga looks, what’s really impressive is Tomi’s line economy. His character designs are actually quite simple, built from easily recognizable shapes and making smart use of scattered lines to fill out the details of things like the lizard warriors’ scales or the Princess’ hair. The Water Sprites, for instance, are very simple outlines of the human figure, with just a few short lines that are easily readable as the outlines of dresses they are wearing, to not mention the vibrancy of their hair, with one sprite’s being flowing and wispy and the other’s being bubbly and bouncy. The Umber’s design also stands out as being a giant mass of white that is really only given form by the messy but methodically placed lines that indicate its hair and the shape of its body, as well as the spiraling lines that give color and texture to its face. Every character design in the book embodies this design philosophy to some extent, making the most of every shape and line to give just enough of a sense of form and detail, never becoming indulgent in unnecessary specificity and minutia.
Stravaganza also commits to this simplicity in communicating action. Clear lines of action are always recognizable, and precise paneling helps directs the readers’ eyes in ways that maximize the information delivered. It focuses on the immediate consequences of actions between panel to panel, which makes the violence feel particularly brutal and immediate, and very effective. Early on, when the Umber attacks the lizard soldiers, we first see it leap high up in a panel where the camera is looking up, eye-level with the lizard soldiers it is about to attack. Then, in the second panel, we see the immediate impact of the Umber hitting the ground, with the line of action of the creature’s movement between these two panels being perfectly straight, easily guiding the readers’ eye from the top panel to the second, and right down to the third panel where we see a close-up of the lizard soldiers here gush out blood from his mouth, delivering the consequence of this violent series of events. Tomi’s use of speed lines to indicate motion and impact in a single panel is superb. There’s a ferocity in the titan’s strike that is indicated purely through the curve of a group of lines and the placement of panels indicating the origin of an action and its consequence. The form of the Umber’s arms isn’t necessary for the second panel because the reader is easily able to interpret the sequence of events through the juxtaposition of these panels.
While the action beats in the manga are supremely satisfying, the story’s heart definitely lies in its protagonist and its humor. Despite the verdant beauty of its setting, the world of Stravaganza is deceptively bleak. The Mitteria Kingdom is constantly threatened by the giant ape-like Umber, who are three times the size of humans and monstrously strong, requiring bulky armor and heavy weaponry to combat them. We see early on in the book how the protagonist, Queen Vivian, is personally affected and distraught by the human costs of Umber attacks. While the first half of the book is relatively light-hearted, the book takes a sudden, shocking turn by its mid-point, after which Vivian she must abandon the Kingdom with her surviving citizens to seek a safe haven for her people and allies to fight back against the Umber.
Throughout the book, Vivian attempts to raise the morale of her citizens and soldiers by playing fun games or putting on amusing displays, most charmingly when she entertains young children by making bouquets of flowers pop out of her mask. While perhaps overly fun-loving and impulsive, quick to get herself and trouble and frustrate her attendants, it’s clear that Vivian is passionate about protecting her people and is always striving to help, making her an inspirational leader in their eyes. While the reasons for her wearing a mask aren’t explicitly stated, a moment towards the end of the book sheds light that the anonymity may help her interact more honestly with people than if they always knew she was the queen. Her maskless “Claria” persona allows her to participate in daily life in the kingdom, and gauge the needs and opinions of her people more accurately. The first half of the book is comprised of a few fun, humor-filled stories that help readers get a grasp of Vivian’s character and life in Miterria, building up a sense of her daily life and an idea of the peace and people she wants to protect. The humor keeps balance the bleakness of other parts of the story, helping the manga stay consistently fun to read no matter what transpires.
While Stravaganza is overall a fun and enjoyable read, it isn’t without a few caveats. Namely, it’s a very horny manga. Tomi loves to linger on close-ups of Vivian’s breasts, butt, and tights – with one sequence of panels explicitly fixated on them as a male character wistfully muses that “I want to bury my face in those thighs.” Tomi also seems to have a thing for women being drenched in water, because they find many opportunities to depict Vivian or other women taking baths or dripping in water by some contrivance, most indulgently so when Vivian’s hostess friend Alyssa is giving a performance and her patrons throw beer on her, upon which she strips out of her clothes and rubs her breasts erotically. There’s also a lot of sexually-charged jokes revolving around Vivian being in an embarrassing position because she’s accidentally nude or getting sexually harassed. In fact, there are two entire chapters in this volume involving the same perverted old man groping Vivian and ripping off the clothes of female characters, and full of moments where said characters mimic getting orgasms or are featured in other sexually compromising positions. It’s evident Tomi loves the female body with how many excuses they find to draw Vivian and other women naked, which isn’t a problem in of itself necessarily. It’s these perverted jokes, especially those centered around sexual harassment and the embarrassment of the victims, that are a real sour spot in an otherwise enjoyable story.
Stravaganza is overall a strong fantasy manga recommendation for those interested in a story with a great heroine and a fascinating world of monstrous apes and friendly giants. Though the fanservice is often frustrating, the story’s female characters are diverse and interesting, being more than a few shades of badass in their ability to punch an Umber to death or outwit a bunch of clueless men. Plus, yuri fans will be happy to know there’s plenty of queer undertones between Vivian and her attendant Luba, and the chapter where Luba dresses up in a tuxedo and they share a dance in the ballroom is adorably charming. In general, this first volume establishes a lot of interesting and endearing characters, relationships, conflicts, and world-building, and it feels like there are tons more it has yet to offer. Stravaganza is an extravagantly drawn story, and it’s successfully drawn me into its world and keen to explore it further in future volumes.