CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 13 . . . . December 1, 2017
Steampunk meets the Wild West meets Tintin in this satisfying graphic novel by Arthur Slade (author of many books including the award winning "The Hunchback Assignments" series) and artist Christopher Steininger. Modo: Ember's End is a tale of adventure, replete with zany escapades, silly jokes, a little magic and some speculative science. The heroes of the piece are Modo and Octavia, two British spies who are roaming the North American desert in 1885. The characters previously appeared in four Slade novels of the non graphic sort, and while knowing the history of the characters would add enrichment to the reading experience, this tale does stand alone quite well. The pair turn up on horseback in the dusty town of Ember's End, built by a mad scientist. The local barkeep (who is also the doctor, librarian and judge) is looking for some help with law enforcement and deputizes Modo and Octavia. They are quickly threatened by a ninja who urges them to leave town.
The plot is fairly predictable and straightforward. Some baddies have appeared, searching for a dangerous weapon which was supposedly invented by Dr Ember, now deceased. As time and space are in short supply in this book, there aren't many twists and turns: Ember's daughter Annette surmises that the villain must be her uncle, and indeed he is. He and his lackeys try to scare the new deputies out of town, but when that doesn't work, they kidnap Octavia and then Annette. Some creative thinking saves the day and neatly wraps up the story.
Technology figures prominently in the yarn, and even though readers will probably be familiar with some of the common elements of steampunk technology (clockwork creatures and other ingenious machines), the devices here are still original, intriguing and fun, and are shown to great effect by Steininger's art. Ember's End uses pneumatic tubes to communicate, and it is usually a safe haven as Dr Ember devised a special forcefield which prevents gunpowder from firing. There is plenty of food for thought and discussion surrounding whether the devices portrayed are possible and how they might be made. And the book does concern itself with the responsibility inherent in invention and how to use our creative powers for good rather than evil.
One disappointment is that the character of Octavia could be better developed. She is a foil, although, to be fair, neither main character has much depth. She has an admirable adventurous spirit, and it is refreshing that no one in the story is surprised by her femaleness (other than the ninja who does not 'fight women'). But Octavia's weakness for shoes and her tendency to need rescuing (as does the other main female character) is perhaps a little sexist. Modo generally hides his face, but when necessary he can manipulate his facial form and later his appearance. More of this backstory doubtless appears in the previous books; we are only teased with a few hints here. I would have loved to have known more about him but will have to tackle the novels for that. Banter is the primary mode of communication and the main method used for character development. The jokes and word play make this a very fun, clever read but might leave some readers hoping for a bit more insight into the two heroes.
Modo: Ember's End owes much in style and content to the Franco Belgian tradition of bandes dessinées (literally 'drawn strips') such as The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé, Lucky Luke by Morris, Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean Claude Mézières and Asterix by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, which have been treated as serious works of art and which include elements that appeal to both children and adults. Like those books, this is essentially an adventure romp, with strange and magnificent settings, lots of odd characters and plenty of jokes.
The question of recommended readership is complex. Orca Books has this title designated for children ages 9-12. While more sophisticated young readers who enjoy classics like Tintin will certainly be able to read and enjoy some ingredients of this book (including universal themes of loss, desperation and courage), older teens might glean more from the more intricate and inventive uses of storytelling structure, setting, context and character interaction. The only stumbling block for older teens might be the perception that comics of this style are somehow 'not cool' or 'for kids,' due to the way it has been packaged. However, Modo: Ember's End actually has a lot to offer older readers and is just as interesting for adults as it is for kids. It seems a little odd to pitch this for young readers given that the book has no characters who are children. Instead, they are asked to relate to the hero and heroine, who are obviously adults and do not have the ageless childish quality of characters like Asterix or Tintin. It is really the style of graphic art and the wacky sense of humour which point toward the 9-12 age range more than anything else. In fact, even experienced readers of comics and graphic novels might find some of the layout and plot structure of Modo: Ember's End to be challenging. The length is good for young readers, at just 88 pages. This is the first trade publication, although the book was published in limited edition through a Kickstarter campaign in 2014.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent, editor and cultural critic in Vancouver, BC.