High fantasy is one of the most difficult genres to execute in comics. Simply consider the adaptations of Game of Thrones bogged down with too many characters, too much dialogue, and a pace that is lethargic, even when compared to the low points of the novels. Comics are constrained simply by space, so introducing a brand new world filled with its own politics, history, and magic is a very difficult feat. The first issue of Sleepless acknowledges these constraints and focuses on its own strengths in order to introduce a fascinating new fantasy world packed with potential.
There are lots of familiar elements in Sleepless. There are royal families, brave knights, castles, magic, and points of intrigue. The story focuses on Poppy, a princess whose father just died, ceding the throne to her uncle. In the days following his death, she ponders what must come next and is protected by a Cyrenic, a sleepless knight who has had his ability to rest removed somehow. It’s the focus on this pair and their walk through a single, eventful night in the kingdom of Harbeny that makes Sleepless accessible and allows readers to being the process of unraveling a complex new tale.
While a focused story is important, it’s the pacing of that story that really makes Sleepless #1 function as both an individual issue and general introduction. Individuals scenes are allowed space to breathe; it’s rare to see more than a few word balloons in a given page. Leila del Duca does much of the heavy lifting as splash panels and minor details reveal just as much as what is being said. The issue breaks down into four essential stages and none of them feel rushed or overstuffed. Emphasis is placed on the story being told rather than exposition, and this has a massive impact.
When dialogue is emphasized, Sarah Vaughn always utilizes it on multiple levels. There’s just as much being unsaid as being said. Allusions are carefully crafted to help readers build the world in their own minds, and del Duca frames panels in order to help guide the eye towards the unspoken truths. The work behind this introduction is shown in how little thought is required. The experience of reading Sleepless #1 is undisturbed, but the amount learned in only 28 pages is incredible.
All of this is to say that Sleepless presents an ideal first issue, one that not only overcomes challenges, but offers plenty of reasons to keep reading. It functions exceedingly well as a fantasy comic packed with simmering ideas, but reading more like the first few chapters of a novel. Hints of romance, danger, and politicking abound, but the mood is more like that of a lazy, summer afternoon. Del Duca’s presentation of the world and its characters enhance this feeling. People and animals alike exude personality, but their are creeping flaws that avoid the effect of trying too hard to please. Harbeny is a world that invites us as spectators, but already contains ample warning for its inhabitants. There are a million places to go, but every reason to savor the individual page. No comic in 2017 has perfected the formula of high fantasy as well as Sleepless.
Written by Sarah Vaughn
Art by Leila del Duca
Colors by Alissa Sallah
Letters by Deron Bennett