First issues have a lot of heavy lifting to do. They have to establish the tone, themes, characters, and style of the series to come. So it can be deceiving when a first issue is not very good. But in this case, I stayed for #2 and was pleasantly surprised.
While the first issue of Middlewest was languidly paced and piled up clichés (abusive dad, rebellious but nice child protagonist who gets in trouble, charming animal sidekick), this second issue moves forward and establishes more of the world Young and Corona are building.
In this issue, Abel and his foxy sidekick (who’s “not big on the whole name thing”) meet up with a kindly wizard named Jeb, who rescues them from a hungry bird humanoid. If that sounds totally bizarre, you’re right, but these creatures and events are presented in a startlingly matter-of-fact way, which I actually appreciated. This world is more akin to The Wizard of Oz or a Miyazaki film — places that mirror our own, but indulge in fantastical doses of magical-realism.
I mentioned Miyazaki, but I have to stress how much this borrows from the Japanese master in terms of narrative. The fox, as mentioned before, doesn’t give a name, to which Jeb replies: “It’s said that a lot of power is held in a name.” Hmmm. Sounds an awful lot like Spirited Away and its concept of having to reclaim your own name to escape. Furthermore, Abel, after an encounter with his tornado father, has a glowing mark on his chest that threatens to grow and be destructive when he becomes angry (you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry). Hmmm. Sounds a tad like Princess Mononoke and its young hero being infected with hate.
I’m not necessarily saying this is a terrible thing, but these references are slathered on quite thickly, and it remains to be seen if this series has enough moxie to craft its only unique and compelling story — to transcend its influences. There are talking animals, wizards, and lots of technology powered by goo, but I’m not sure what truly sets Middlewest apart. All I see so far is a Don Bluth/Miyazaki/Oz mashup.
In terms of genuine positives, it’s nice to see Abel have some real personality and grit to him other than being a generic child protagonist. If this series continues to develop Abel, he could end up holding Middlewest together.
This world may not be as fascinating as I want yet, but Jorge Corona does his finest to keep it lively. Corona is reminiscent of both Young and somebody like Ben Caldwell, artists whose work could easily transition to a stunning animated feature with their strong character design, settings, and exaggerated dynamism.