08 December 2008

Last But Not Least: The Courageous Princess

And at last I come to the final finalist for the 2007 Cybils Awards for Graphic Novels: The Courageous Princess, by Rod Espinosa. I thought this was one of the most enjoyable of the nominees, and well suited for younger readers.

Espinosa's fantasy adventure quite consciously mixes traditional fairy-tale elements with some modern touches. For example, the title character, Mabelrose, is a princess. But she's not a stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed beauty. Her skin is a freckled tan halfway between her mother's pale pink and her father's light brown, and her brunette hair is usually a mess. (The human cast's visual variety may reflect Espinosa's upbringing in the Philippines.)

In other ways, however, The Courageous Princess doesn't veer far from what most readers probably want. Mabelrose is anime-cute, and spunky as all get out. She attracts cute animal companions. And while she takes care of herself, she also keeps hoping for a prince. On the other side of the conflict, the villain's animal henchmen are lizards and vultures--ugly animals reflecting traditional visual stereotyping.

Similarly, the story takes a lot of familiar fairy-tale plot turns, connected in new ways. A dragon kidnaps the princess. She journeys toward home across a landscape filled with talking animals, castles, and villages of little people. There are knights in armor, magical objects, deposed kings--almost everything a fairy-tale fan would demand.

Mabelrose has apparently read the same stories as her audience. When a warthog asks her for a kiss, she assumes that it will turn him into a handsome prince. But no.

Among the classic fantasies that The Courageous Princess alludes to is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, though not in a way that fits with the books or movie we all know.
In addition, the people even shorter than Mabelrose are called "Munken," apparently inspired by L. Frank Baum's Munchkins.

Two qualities hampered The Courageous Princess in the Cybils judging. First, the 2007 edition of this comic, published by Dark Horse, contained the same material that had appeared in a 2003 collection from Antarctic Press, except in a smaller trim size. Moreover, before that the same pages had appeared in serial form, and the volume shows its roots in magazines: the saga is incomplete, leaving Mabelrose at the end of a "story arc" but still not home.

Of more concern to me, the story's good guys are able to solve most of the challenges that confront them quite quickly. Mabelrose is constantly meeting nice characters and communities who look after her. A nasty baron besieges her family's castle, but before anything happens her grandparents show up with an even bigger army. Soldiers chase Mabelrose to the top of a tower, but she can swing across a gap to a second tower--a second tower which doesn't appear in any preceding illustration. Thus, while Espinosa's images give off a lot of visual excitement, humor, and of course spunkiness, the story doesn't build as much as I'd have liked.

Similarly, I thought the book established some themes and then didn't follow through. Early on, for instance, a caption and large panel tell us that "most important of all, [Mabelrose's parents] taught her always to pray." But the story doesn't explain what religion they follow (of particular interest since her parents are from different kingdoms), or how that form of faith fits into this magical world. As with the dangers Mabelrose faces and quickly escapes, The Courageous Princess is pleasing in the moment but doesn't reward extended study.

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