Jennifer Dugan, writer
Keezy Young, artist for #1
M J Erickson, colorist for #1
Jen Bartel, cover for #1
M J Erickson, artist & colorist for #2
Eli Baumgartner, cover for #2
Jey Pawlick, artist & colorist for #3
Olivia Stephens, cover for #3
Ariana Maher, letterer #1 – 3
“Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see”
Recently I had the opportunity to read issues # 1-3 of Circadia by young adult and comics author Jennifer Dugan. Planned as a five chapter series, Dugan combines elements of fantasy and mystery to tell the love story between Zara and Aderes as they face perils together. That is, when they are together. You see, Zara is certain she lives in Minneapolis while rooming with only friend Em and attending class taught by Viviette Tellurude while Aderes is the lead assassin and bodyguard to the Queen of Circadia, a magical land under threat of the evil Smoake who controls legions of demons. Zara is certain Aderes and Circadia are figments of recurring dreams her mind has created to relieve stress brought on by Viviette’s rudeness and demanding behavior. Aderes is frustrated because they can’t understand where Zara disappears for hours on end. Then, just as Zara begins to slip away Aderes performs a binding spell using a red ribbon tied at their wrists. Zara’s existential crisis begins upon waking and finding a red ribbon tied around her wrist.
Dugan deftly advances the plot by dividing time between the worlds of Circadia and Earth, teasing us with clues that broaden the mystery while fleshing out Zara and Aderes as individuals and a couple. A few lines of dialog Dugan wrote between Aderes and Zara caught my attention. They appear during a scene in which the pair have taken a ride to a nearby valley to be alone, or as alone as they can be with retainers and guards in accompaniment. Aderes mentions to Zara that the people adore her, to which Zara says “You risk your life to keep them safe. They should be cheering you.” Aderes insightfully responds: “I may keep them breathing, but you bring them joy.” Each in their own way have been so caught up in their roles and how it complicates their lives. It’s a situation to which most of us can relate at one time or another. Only after Zara asks Aderes to drop the mask and hood is Aderes able to be free spirited. What follows is laughter and happiness as they frolik in the grass. Their playful abandon reminds me of a scene toward the end of Studio Ghibli’s The Princess Kaguya that I watched recently. In it a meadow is the setting for a happy reunion between Sutemaru, now a young man returning to the land his family left a decade before and “Little Bamboo”, his childhood nickname for childhood friend Kaguya. Here as in the movie, the reverie between Zara and Aderes is interrupted by the gravity of matters. Dugan uses the tonal break to show more of Aderes’ virtues and revealing some doubt while relating the last encounter with Smoake whom everyone save Aderes believes was killed in the struggle.
There is more than one mystery that Dugan presents to the reader which I find engaging. Is Munny the crow Princess Zara’s friend or a spy for the Queen or something else? How can Zara travel between worlds if her mother the Queen banished her to Earth? Why does Smoake want to create havoc and end the Queen’s rule? Is Zara’s roommate Em really just a ballet student or connected to the Queen? Most importantly, will Zara and Aderes find peace and be able to make the life they deserve together? Can Aderes really only be her imagination?
Dugan has made two commitments which I think are admirable. The first is to tell stories with queer representation. Zara is bisexual (there is a hint of a previous possible relationship) and Aderes is non binary. It’s there for the reader to notice rather than being told through exposition. The second is to use many queer women and non binary folks across the five issue run. This idea has great appeal to me since it allows different artists to bring their talents and skills while exposing readers, myself included, to unfamiliar artists and a range of styles.
The cover art by Jen Bartel on #1 and Eli Baumgartner for #2 is strikingly beautiful! Bartel’s work is always gorgeous! The two characters seemingly diagonally suspended in space with the twisting red ribbon uniting them on the opposite diagonal to form a subtle X composition makes for a stunning design. Baumgartner’s piece emphasizes the grandeur of Circadia juxtaposed against the solitary figure of Zara with an evocative purple, pink, and dark blue palette. I’ve not had the opportunity to see Olivia Stephens’ cover art for issue #3, at least in full. From looking at other samples of her work I think her expressionistic style has a nice energy and compliments Pawlik’s interiors.
Keezy Young provides the interior art for #1. Their art has a delicate and sketch like quality lending the feel of a storybook fable to convey the uncertainty of which world on either side of the thin veil is real and which is a dream. MJ Erickson illustrates the second issue. Her thicker linework gives a more substantial feel to the figures and grounds them in a more dimensional space. She also has a nice trick of using a slightly out of register red outline around faces and figures to convey the veil separating these two worlds has grown thin. Erickson’s beautifully subtle color sensibility is on display in these two issues; in the first she adapts it to suit Young’s style. Jey Pawlik’s animated energy concentrates on the characters’ high emotions punctuated with the occasional humorous, stress induced snark. Their minimal backgrounds and occasional playing with scale helps to highlight Zara and Aderes’ reactions. I may be wrong in saying this but I think the variety of styles and their ordering infers Zara’s psychological progression. Shout out to Ariana Maher for her clean, crisp lettering throughout!
Circadia is for you if you appreciate queer romance, more diverse representation, and young adult literature though it’s certainly not just for young adults, mind you! And crow lovers!
You won’t find Circadia in comic shops. Dugan is using Kickstarter to fund the series. The current campaign is for issues #3 and #4 with catch up options for #1 and #2.
Here’s the Kickstarter link!