While many comics fans, myself included, are not fans of the term "graphic novel", the format does lead to some valuable comparisons.
When a comic is published as a graphic novel or OGN, it does not depend on readers returning to learn more. It is capable of delivering a complete story, fleshing out a world, and carrying readers from start to finish without a break. Debate the terminology all you want, but the upcoming Image debut of Afar shows the value of this specific format. It is a beautifully presented story that constructs a sprawling world, a canvas tailor-made for storytelling, and delivers on the promise of self-contained narrative.
Afar is Leila Del Duca's writing debut at Image Comics as her work on Shutter draws to a closer. She teams with artist Kit Seaton (Otto the Odd and the Dragon King) to construct the story of two siblings forced to fend for themselves as they encounter drastically different obstacles. Inotu, the younger brother, gets into trouble while their parents are away and forces them to flee across an inhospitable desert. In the meanwhile, Boetema, the older and more responsible sister, is struggling with her ability to visit distant planets and other forms of life in her dreams.
The juxtaposition of these two very different journey lies at the heart of Afar. It is both the story of young people learning how to survive a tough life and about dreams that span the galaxy in a very literal fashion. There's nothing mundane about either aspect though. Even when Boetema and Inotu are holed up at home, the world they occupy is as fascinating as discovering Tatooine for the first time in Star Wars. What is grubby to these protagonists is still stuffed with detail and possibility for readers.
It is here that Keaton and Del Duca's combined experience as designers is put on full display. They aim to capture the imagination at every possible turn. Each town or new world is made to stand out from what has come before. They don't seek to overwhelm either. Instead, they are carefully crafted to invite the eye and allow readers to piece details together and imagine what life must be like in each new setting. It is an invitation to explore more than anything else, and that invitation still feels fresh after an initial reading.
That readers can take the time to soak in the world(s) of Afar is a key strength of its single volume publication. The key setting might remind readers of certain locales and periods from reality, but it is entirely its own thing. Rather than engage in extensive exposition, Afar offers details about this place at a natural pace all related to the story of its two lead characters. Readers could extrapolate from what they observe on the page, both in the foreground and background, to make guesses about what the economy or politics of this place might be like, but nothing is spelled out. While that might leave some looking for more once the story ends, no more is needed. Offering additional details on the city-state rules of these children's home would be like delving into the local politics of Mos Eisley; it's fine back matter for some, but would damage the heart of the story.
Seaton does a stunning job of capturing detail within each scene too. As the children migrate between locales, it's possible to both see them as part of a connected map and uniquely distinguished places. Her colorwork makes the arid landscape and brutal heat stand out as a similar factor, but the shapes and designs of buildings clarify elements of wealth and history. Much of Afar is defined by grids of 5 or more panels, but when it allows a splash or spread to appear, Seaton seizes the opportunity to pull the eye into a world they won't want to turn the page on.
Individual characters are just as well defined, and nowhere is this more clear than in the quick exposition done for alien worlds. Most of Boetema's dreams last only 1 or 2 pages, with a single notable exception, and so there's only the quickest glimpse of each alien race, and the flora and fauna that surround them. Yet within each of these snapshots there is a thoughtfulness. They exist like the best openers of 2000 A.D. "Future Shocks" creating a complete world that is irresistible. There is something familiar and alien to each environment, a combination well defined by the "lizard dog" that appears in glimpses throughout Afar. That creature is something composed of a variety of animals, with touches of pangolin and snake. Yet its nature is that of the charming mutt with a big heart and keen intuition. This soul is never more present than with this one oddball alien invention, but it runs throughout the entire story.
This is the aesthetic that captures Afar at its absolute best. It is a story of exploration, discovery, and imagination. The plotting of that story stumbles in some places, but never to a distracting degree. Del Duca introduces elements, like a young romance and grammar troubles for Inotu, that never deliver a satisfactory sense of catharsis. Boetema's story is clearly the guiding plot and it is the stronger half of the narrative by far. Yet none of Afar ever takes too much time or risks boring a reader. It strides along confidently exploring its own world and about a dozen others, actively encouraging readers to set aside a couple of hours to finish the comic in a single sitting.
Afar is a compelling argument for the adoption of the European publication style in America. Rather than risk readers quibbling about minor details in carefully sectioned 20-page installments, it delivers a complete vision. And that vision is stunning. Each page is crafted in a manner that makes it worthy of consideration, and every alien world drawn by Seaton begs for its own tale. While there could be sequels made to Afar, it exists entirely on its own and deserves recognition for being a complete piece of art. While it might cost more than a new #1, it is worth the risk. This is a comic worth immersing yourself in from start to finish.