Story & Art by Akihito Tomi
Translated by Zack Davisson
Lettered by Marshall Dillon
Edited by M. Chandler
Stravaganza left its first volume on a note bracing readers for a fierce fight against the Umber to take back the kingdom of Mitera. This second volume begins by immediately diffusing that tension and replacing it with ominous dread. Vivian and her allies storm the kingdom prepared for a brawl with beasts. Instead, they find themselves in a silent city, peppered with the fresh corpses of creatures who’ve died suddenly and mysteriously.
There’s a particularly affecting scene dedicated to Vivian and company encountering an Umber crawling, with tears in its eyes, as it gasps its last breaths before collapsing. A page is dedicated to the Umber’s last tears, starting with a close-up of its eye on the top-left panel. It looks at Vivian and company pleadingly, while they can only look back unsure of what they’re seeing. Finally, the light in its eye goes out. We see a closeup of its eye once again in the bottom-left panel, dull and deadened. It’s loss of life is indicated with thin black hash lines over the flattened surface of its pupil, as its tears continue to trickle off the rim of its eyelid. Then, we cut out to see a bird’s eye view of the dead Umber and the people watching it; a small silent, somber moment. This scene sets the tone for the story’s more melancholic direction, and the looming threat of lives being suddenly and cruelly taken away.
Stravaganza gives its characters time to mourn and reflect on loss. A chapter is spent on Vivian and Luba rummaging through the wreckage of their Kingdom, reminiscing about places and people they knew that were destroyed by the Umber. They reflect on the people and pleasures they took for granted, as the weight of loss slowly hits them and both break down into tears. There’s another heartbreaking story about Josh, a boy whose dog has to be put down because it’s infected with Escine. Vivian keeps her composure in public, but when she’s alone, she lies distraught on her bed. She reflects upon the Escine situation, the poor dog whose pupils slowly started to turn white, the sad and desperate boy, and the dog being killed with its blood spilling on the floor, and she slams her first into her bed in frustration. Meanwhile, the child sleeps in his bed dreaming of the pet who’s passed on, appearing symbolically as a shining star in the night sky. Stravagana allows readers to dwell in the sad state of affairs the characters have found themselves in. They’re trying to move on while also being confronted with inescapable tragedy, all while having to unfurl the mystery of a poison that haunts their dreams.
As such, the first half of this volume which focuses on Mitera trying to readjust to life in the wake of recent tragedy is by far its strongest stretch. In addition to the big mournful moments, there are also small moments of distress that really stand out. For instance, Olavya realizes the deer she just fought and killed was infected with escine like the Umber, or when Josh notices how afraid and worried everyone is that his dog is infected, being forced to surrender it to his dad. These are contrasted with kind, humorous moments that are really touching too, like when Olavya presents the deer she’s freshly caught to cheer Luba up, or when the citizens of Mitera hug the feet of their giant Sephyea friends before they leave.
The character relationships are at its strongest in this part of the story too, especially the intimacy shared between Vivian and Luba. Their friendship and emotional awareness of each other’s needs run deep, evident in moments like Vivian noticing Luba wants to eat oranges too and shares hers with her in spite of Luba saying she’ll eat later, or when Luba realizes Vivian’s plan and confronts her before she leaves.
This later moment stands out, because it emphasizes the trust shared between them. Vivian almost asks Luba what she’d do if she didn’t return, but Luba staunchly replies that will never happen, showing both of their vulnerability and faith in each other. Instead, Vivian leaves Mitera in Luba’s care, entrusting her with her mask. Their relationship is symbolized through the exchange of the mask and a red ribbon Vivian gave to Luba as kids. They’re the only ones they allow themselves to be vulnerable with, sharing parts of themselves only the other truly knows about. When Luba returns the ribbon to Vivian, it also becomes a promise between them that she will come back to her.
This is a moment of emotional intimacy unrivaled by other relationships in the book, showing them hug and Luba thinking to herself “I want to go with you…” There are so many good moments like this in the first half of the book where characters are doing their best to be composed while also struggling with fraught emotions internally, deepening character relationships and making the stakes feel all the more personal and vulnerable.
Sadly, Vivian leaving Mitera also means the story leaves behind the center of the narrative’s most important relationships, resulting in the narrative losing some of its emotional grounding. Fortunately, Vivian is a compelling enough protagonist to carry the story on her own. Throughout the first half of the book, she’s struggling to maintain her responsibilities as Queen and do right by her people with her own frustrations and sadness over what is going on. She wants to do more to help her people, but ironically, she’s limited by what they need of her. Vivian grapples with having the responsibility of protecting an entire kingdom on her shoulders, her efforts to research and solve the mystery of the Escine poisoning informed by that conviction.
Beyond that narrative weight, Vivian is naturally kind, considerate, and curious. She enjoys traveling to new places, meeting new people, learning about them, and helping when she can. So she’s confronted with a sense of moral guilt when she can’t help someone, and can only watch suffering occur without any way to stop it. The series challenges her with tough situations like having to kill the formerly friendly Kum Kum after he’s infected by the Escine, and being betrayed by someone she trusted when Golmore reveals who he really is. Vivian has strived to see the best in people, but her experiences being tortured and betrayed by others almost makes her think of the Orks as inhuman. Vivian’s struggles to bear her burdens and do the right thing while not losing herself to despair or hatred is a compelling thread throughout the book, and is what propels the story forward heading into its next volume.
While I’m most drawn to the weighty themes of the story and the relationships between its characters, one of Stravaganza’s most striking strengths is undeniably its badass action scenes. Tomi draws some brutal carnage, like when Olavya smacks an Umber’s head so hard it explodes into mushy pieces of brains and flesh, or when she kills a deer by grabbing its antlers with her bare hands and twisting its neck. Beyond the brutality of the moments themselves, Tomi communicates the ferocity of the violence through sharply directed speed lines and speedy timing between panels to communicate the kinetic energy in each beat and the impact of every hit.
The best page that illustrates this for me is actually one where the action slows down to show us one specific, awesome beat in a fight. When Ork King Haku is being thrown down by his Escine-drugged grunt, he swings his free leg so fast that it is blindingly white, appearing as but a blur in the middle of the black background in the panel. Then we have a close-up panel on his ankle right before it’s about to make contact with his horn, immediately followed by a panel showing that impact and the horn piercing through his ankle as the heel of his foot hit his head. Then we widen back to see a thick white action line from the point of impact straight downwards to the bottom of the panel. Its path leads us to the bottom right panel and seeing the grunt’s grip on Haku’s other leg slip. This is accompanied by the panel to it’s left, showing Haku’s body slam on the floor with a big impact burst and surrounded by multiple speed lines demonstrating the intensity of the fall, beautifully framed by both the Japanese and English sound effect for “WAM!” Tomi communicates the intensity of action beats by highlighting the most impactful, painful parts of any given move in the fight and illustrating both the before and after states of the characters perfectly. The action always stays clear, fierce, and a ton of fun to follow.
Stravaganza has a lot of endearing strengths, which makes its problematic elements all the more frustrating as impediments to enjoying it. The series persistently engages in fanservice in the form of sexually suggestive framing that emphasizes female characters’ breasts or butts. While these moments can generally be taken in good fun, like in the context of the story’s many frequent bathing scenes, oftentimes the fanservice is presented in the form of Vivian’s privacy being violated, or worse, sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of sexually exploitative violence Vivian endures in this volume, being molested and groped several times, and being forced to pretend she’s being raped at one point.
I feel the most obnoxiously exploitative moments occur when she’s literally tortured naked for no reason other than for the amusement of the reader, or when the fanservice is actively distracting from the narrative. The most glaring instance of this for me was in the scene where Vivian is putting on clothes while asking Golmore an important question. The specific panel where she asks this is a shot of her butt as she’s pulling up her pants. Just. Why? These moments are not only distracting and unnecessary, but they insultingly reduce Vivian into a sexual object instead of focusing on her as the protagonist and emotional tether of this story. The fanservice in Stravaganza frequently distracts from or undermines the story it’s telling and is so often in poor taste that it makes reading parts of it difficult in ways at odds with the story’s intent.
While the unnecessary sexualization and molestation is a problem that carries over from the last book, this volume also introduces another compounding issue in its representation of dark-skinned characters. It’s uncomfortable that Golmore, the villainous elf that created the Escine poison, is literally black-skinned and questioned why he’s black instead of fair-skinned like other elves. It’s inexcusable that the Klord, the human-like race drawn explicitly like black people except with tails, are drawn with pronounced, thick white lips like the racist Sambo stereotype. They also all sport locks, apparently, even though the fair-skinned characters in Mitera all had different non-specific hairstyles. While Klord society and people generally don’t fall into other offensive pitfalls and are very diverse and developed, they’re marred by this historically hurtful character design choice.
Even if Tomi might not have had the cultural awareness of why black characters with big white lips are problematic, it’s still disappointing to see potentially cool representation weakened by this baggage. When placed into context with each other, these character designs feel rooted in unfortunate stereotypes dehumanizing dark-skinned characters. When conflated with a “black means evil” character design philosophy, it presents some unfortunate subtext when it comes to Golmore. To be fair, they read like thoughtless design choices and not malicious ones on Tomi’s part, but they add another uncomfortable bent to an otherwise enjoyable story that I wish had been done differently.
Overall, Stravaganza’s story makes a lot of strides in this volume, though not without its unfortunate setbacks. At the very least I hope the final volume features less sexual assault. Still, I’m very invested in Vivian’s story and the suspensefulness of the action, and curious to see where her character arc leads and how this conflict is resolved. With the story’s emphasis on empathy and compassion, I’m hoping we’ll see more nuances to Ork society and there’ll be a diplomatic resolution instead of a violent one. I’m especially interested in how Golmore ties into the story thematically, since his status as the sole black elf in this world seems very tied to his motives in conquest. Stravaganza continues to be an extravaganza of awesome action and endearing characters, and despite its issues, I’m looking forward to indulging in it some more.