Ask any kid and I would guarantee that they’ve fantasized at least once about being the hero who saves the day. Even the most ordinary kid in the world imagines how great it would be if they were somehow dragged into another world, a place which depended on them and them alone to take out the evil overlord and save the day. It’s why stories like Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Neverending Story are so popular. In most of these stories, the effects on the world that the children leave behind when they go off on their adventures are usually explained away via the vagaries of time travel or dismissed entirely as having nothing worth going back to. But what if that’s not the case? What happens to the hero’s family if he never comes back or possibly even worse, comes back completely different? How does the real world cope with someone who’s become a fantasy hero and suddenly is back in the “real world”? In Image Comics’ new(ish) fantasy series, Birthright, this is exactly the scenario confronted by the Rhodes family. When Mikey, the family’s youngest son, disappears one day while he and his father are playing in the woods, the family is torn apart and Mikey is thrown into a violent fantasy world that expects him to save the day. When Mikey returns home, nothing can ever be the same and fantasy and the real world begin to mix in completely unexpected ways. Birthright is currently up to fifteen issues and is planned for at least three more. It’s written by Joshua Williamson, illustrated by Andrei Bressan and colored by Adriano Lucas. It’s an interesting and compelling take on a standard fantasy hero’s journey.
Birthright is essentially an examination of family and how the standard hero’s adventure/journey can alter relationships in unexpected ways, particularly when said hero is a normal kid being dragged into a distinctly abnormal world. Mikey’s disappearance in the forest led to serious repercussions for his family. In the year since his disappearance, Mikey’s father Aaron has become a drunk who has struggled with the suspicions of the entire world. Aaron has been accused of being a childkiller, even by his own wife and son, an accusation that has torn the family apart. Mikey’s mother, Wendy, has just given Aaron divorce papers and Mikey’s older brother Brennan struggles with bullies who torment him with the family’s troubles. As for Mikey, things have changed significantly. Time passed very differently in the fantasy world, Terrenos, where Mikey has become a fabled hero. While Mikey disappeared as a small boy, he has returned as large, Conan the Barbarian look-alike. Is it any wonder that the rest of the Rhodes family is at loss to understand how this large man could possibly be their little Mikey? And Mikey has a task ahead of him. He isn’t just home to say hello to the family. Having saved Terrenos from the evil King Lore, Mikey enlists his brother Brennan’s help in hunting down mages hidden in the real world who threaten to destroy Earth as they attempted to destroy Terrenos. Brennan and the rest of the Rhodes family reluctantly begin to accept this new Mikey, even as it seems that Mikey may not be telling them the whole truth about his adventures in Terrenos. Will the Rhodes be able to figure out where fantasy ends and reality begins before they are completely entangled in the dangers from Terrenos or will the dangers brought back by the new Mikey tear them apart for good?
Even in the comic/graphic novel world, fantasy is an enormous genre. There are many brilliant fantasy stories to read so a new series has to be pretty spectacular to stand out. Luckily, Birthright is one such series. Birthright might have some elements of the standard hero’s journey a la Joseph Campbell based fantasy, but what makes it truly special is the ways in which it deals with family ties. The anguish experienced by the other members of the Rhodes family as they tried to deal with Mikey’s disappearance makes the strangeness of being pulled into another world all the more apparent. It’s easy to understand why the different members of the family respond differently to this stranger claiming to be their long lost family member. For Aaron, the young father who just wanted to be the kind of father to his boys that his father never was, this new Mikey is a chance to redeem himself of the label of “childkiller.” For Wendy, the mother who was tormented by the horrifying suspicion that her youngest son was killed by her own husband, the reappearance of Mikey is a chance to have her son back. And for Brennan, he finally has a chance to help Mikey after thinking he would never see his little brother again. These complex family ties lead to each of the family members interacting with Mikey in different ways and influencing his path on his quest to find the mages.
Speaking of Mikey, he was easily one of the most interesting heroic characters that I’ve seen in fantasy. Mikey starts out as a naive little kid who has been dragged into a fantasy world he doesn’t understand. In a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the issues, Williamson and company show how Mikey has become the fantasy hero that he is on his return to his family. Unlike some of the standard fantasy stories like Harry Potter and the Neverending Story however, Terrenos hasn’t just changed Mikey in temporal or magical ways. Mikey has had to throw away his childhood innocence and kindness in order to be the man that Terrenos needed. And that necessity has made Mikey into a less than golden example of a hero. Mikey is harboring some rather dark secrets and as other denizens of Terrenos follow him home, the Rhodes family must figure out how much this new Mikey is like their long lost son and just how honest he is being about his quest to destroy the mages hidden in the real world. This dark side of Mikey makes him much more interesting than a standard fantasy character and his interactions with his family only increase that compelling aspect of his character.
Along with a compelling, nuanced storyline, the artwork done by Andrei Bressan and Adriano Lucas is wonderfully fantastic. With Bressan’s illustrations and Lucas’ coloring, the dual worlds of the reality we are familiar with and the grim, brutal fantasy world of Terrenos are brought to vibrant life. Birthright is an excellent example of a comic that is both written well and beautiful to look at. It’s often also incredibly disturbing as there are some terrible things about Terrenos that are revealed as the reader learns more about Mikey and his journey. If you want a non-standard fantasy story that deals with issues like family ties and the ways in which people and consequently their relationships change, Birthright is a must read. It’s easily one of the best fantasy graphic novels I’ve read in a very long time. Highly recommend it!