Lars Brown’s North World (Oni Press), a collection of Brown’s webcomic, is a sometimes frustrating collection of strengths and weaknesses. Brown displays some good instincts in the development of concepts and characters, but his grasp on pacing and structure needs work.
He’s constructed some concurrent narrative elements that are mutually supportive in smart ways. Young adventurer Conrad wants to move to the next level of his profession; he’s stuck at the “giant beasts” plateau and wants to face the kind of menaces that “get the bards to come to [him] for a story.” Just such a challenge comes his way, but it forces him to return to his hometown after an absence of several years, just in time for his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. He’s also estranged from his family to some degree, particularly his disapproving father.
So Conrad is juggling career issues, possibly unwanted romantic closure, and unfinished emotional business that ties into his autonomy as an adult. The book has promising architecture, thematically linked but tonally varied. Unfortunately, I don’t think Brown is enough of a juggler to keep things in balance. There’s a lack of focus. It’s a book where everything almost works, but the storytelling is nowhere near as tight as it needs to be to succeed.
Conrad is a promising protagonist, and he’s at a believable impasse between adolescent self-indulgence and fully realized adulthood. Conrad isn’t so immature that he can’t listen to people who care about him, like his father, but he’s not so confident that he can figure out when his ex is jerking him around. (She’s always jerking him around in punishing, passive-aggressive ways, flirtatiously flaunting her current happiness when she isn’t trying to reel him back in.) It’s unclear as to whether a life as a bard-magnet adventurer would be Conrad’s best happy ending, and that’s all to the good. (He’d definitely be better off if he bought his ex a nice place setting and skipped the wedding.)
But Brown can’t quite seem to shape scenes in ways that give the story momentum. Sequences always feel like they’ve run too long, to the point that the concurrent narrative elements lose energy. A subplot that could have been illuminating and even mildly amusing – Conrad runs afoul with some present-day punks who are just as obnoxious as he used to be – goes on for what seems like forever. The subplot provides some fight sequences, but those aren’t really Brown’s forte as an illustrator, so they don’t really serve to change the pace of the proceedings.
It’s a book that’s badly in need of some rigorous editing. I don’t mind a story unfolding casually when that approach serves it, but there’s too much going on in North World to allow this much lingering. It’s somewhat against my nature for me to call for fewer slices of life and more plot, but this story needs to move farther and faster than it does.
(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)
(Updated to note that I can type the same wrong thing over and over, even though some part of my brain knows better. I don’t know where “Caleb” came from.)