It can be easy to dismiss stories written for younger audiences. Many such tales have simplistic plots and language, and—in the case of graphic novels—artwork that is intended to be approachable and appeal to the young, even when they take on serious topics and themes. In the case of The Oates & The Elphyne from cartoonist Michael Walsh, dismissing this story as just a children's tale would be a grave error. The comic is a rare gem that holds something for readers of every age, delivering not only a big, fantastical adventure for its youthful characters, but also a beautifully well-crafted meditation on grief, loss, trauma, and the long journey to healing.
The Oates & The Elphyne follows the titular Oates family who move to their ancestral home in Newfoundland because of a family tragedy – the death of their Uncle Mike. Soon after their arrival another tragedy occurs when the youngest Oates, Beth, is kidnapped by a dark and mysterious creature. Determined to find her and bring her home, older siblings Lynn and Ben set off and find themselves in a magical space between their world and the afterlife: the Elphyne. As they make their way through the Elphyne in search of Beth, the siblings find themselves dealing with a dangerous setting corrupted by the mysterious Dark King who threatens to destroy all of the Elphyne.
The idea is, in a sense, a very big swing with the story possessing similarities to classics like A Wrinkle In Time and, more than that, the various layers and mythos of the Elphyne is one filled with new concepts at nearly every turn. The story requires a good bit of world building, both in terms of the narrative and its visuals. But it's a big swing that pays off. Walsh creates a world within the comic that, despite its magical nature, feels familiar and grounded even in its boldest moments. Walsh also does an incredible job with the characterization of the siblings and the journey that each of them follows individually in addition to their joint rescue mission. The comic is also incredibly well-paced, so nothing is rushed or lingers too long. Readers can digest events, something that makes the forward progress of the story all the more satisfying.
Where The Oates & The Elphyne truly excels, however, is how it approaches aspects of loss and grief. Without offering spoilers—there is a twist that demands to be discovered—Walsh humanizes things without sentimentality. There are no platitudes here, no waving of a wand to forgive or simply heal and move along. Instead, there is a gravity both to the experiences and the actions of these characters. Their pain is real and almost tangible, and it's treated with dignity and respect. In a very real sense, the entire comic has created a safe space to feel the complex and conflicting feelings of loss without judgement—both for the reader and the story's characters. What's more, this is captured not only with the written word, but the artwork as well. This is particularly true within the Elphyne and there simply aren't enough adjectives for the use of color there. It doesn't guide the mood, but it always enhances it.
The Oates & The Elphyne is genuinely a true gem of a comic. Not only does Walsh create a story that is fascinating as an adventure, but is also a beautiful consideration of big, complex feelings all done in a fashion that is appropriate for and appealing to children, and healing for adult readers as well. It's rare that a story like this manages to be both well done and suitable for all ages, but Walsh has done it here. There's a respect for every aspect of the experience on these pages, one that shows the true power of storytelling and how it can heal.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Published by BiG
On May 10, 2022
Written by Michael Walsh
Art by Michael Walsh
Colors by Michael Walsh and Dee Cunniffe
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Cover by Michael Walsh