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Isabellae Vol. 1 review: destiny

Will you own your fate, or will it own you?

Every so often, a European comic finds its way into the American comics world and takes it by storm.  The reality is that almost every Euro comic deserves this attention.  It’s such a different way and presentation of storytelling that truly displays the versatility of the comic book medium.  They’re often published as thicker and more robust albums, and the art is of vital importance.  All of this and more holds true with Isabellae, which ties together themes of spirituality, destiny, culture, and loyalty into one woman’s journey to find, redeem, and come to terms with her family.

Raule and Gabor have made something truly beautiful.  Isabellae transcends the idea of a story because at some point, the book becomes about much more than just the narrative on the pages.  Everyone who reads Isabellae will come to a moment that makes them stop and reflect upon their own lives and how this comic makes them feel, and they will do so almost in a haze of amazement. Isabellae’s journey is so momentous and beautiful that it can’t help but incite awe.

From page 1 you can see that Isabellae has a completely unique identity.  Before your eyes lays a brilliantly rendered world with immaculate line art, displaying detailed and natural elements as far and small as the eye can see.  It’s colored in brown, monochrome palette that masterfully uses light and shadow to build this world before your very eyes.  The panels are stitched together like a puzzle, showing you varied and fascinating angles to the narrative, but leaving you to put it all together.  Each scene is as carefully and intentionally constructed to serve the narrative and a larger purpose.  They all tackle different themes such as mercy, forgiveness, family, grief and many more.  Isabellae follows more than one narrative. Sure, it tells Isabellae’s story, but it tells completely different cultural and spiritual stories as well, and it’s all about finding what resonates with you.

This story has no clear direction, and that’s a good thing.  Just when you think it’s going somewhere or you know everything you need to about Isabellae or her family, a new character or sequence shows you something you couldn’t have imagined that adds a compelling new layer.  Every choice, twist, and turn feels like it has a reason.  It feels like the world’s most ambitious dance, having to capture musicality, rhythm, motion, and spectacle through the visuals and dialogue.  The world of Isabellae feels like it was made for this dance.  There is a ton of rich description, character, and context to get lost in, but ultimately, all that matters is the journey on the page.  The interactions taking place before your eyes, right now.  The world is an exquisite combination of Japanese history, Gaelic folklore, and elements of numerous religions thrown in for good measure.  Raule and Gabor seem to have a deep and thorough knowledge of the components they bring into the story, and it’s an impressive range.  They’ve certainly weaved together an impressive tapestry that may feel familiar in certain places but will take a sharp turn in a new direction before you can pinpoint the exact memory or reference it conjures.  Comics deeply rooted in history, culture, and myth can be really special because they’re already so ingrained into the human experience.  They combine experience, belief, and spirituality into one narrative.  They use the past to evolve and enrich the story, depicting a chronicle rooted in the past but intent on shaping the future.

Certain themes are universal.  Isabellae has to focus on her family, what happened to them, and how to seek redemption, and in doing so commits to a life of solitude, another universal theme.  Nevertheless, the right people are somehow able to find their way into her life, even if she doesn’t understand why or want them.  Redemption is often painful and scary, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.  That is a choice.  The companions who wander into Isabellae’s life do so for a myriad of different reasons.  In the beginning, she travels with her father’s ghost, but as the story goes on, the reason for this grows more complex than just love.  We grow to see her father as a form of penance and caution.  He holds her back from achieving her destiny and always tries to keep her sister at arm’s length.

Ultimately, we learn that in order to reach your goals, you have to move forward, and that there are two deaths.  The first death is when the physical person dies, but the second death, the more tragic, powerful, and sometimes more necessary one, is when the memory and spirit die.  By the time that happens though, Isabellae has a few friends by her side.  We have Masshiro, a brave and loyal warrior smitten with Isabellae for letting him go when he and his fellow bandits tried to kill her.  Now he is extremely loyal and will sacrifice himself to protect her.  Loyalty is actually a common motif throughout the book, as Isabellae gains the loyalty of many but questions if she’s earned it.  Jinku is a scrappy, young, failed monk with a number of useful skills who is loyal to Isabellae mostly because his former master told him to be, and he doesn’t belong anywhere else.  Qiang is a skilled fighter who thought his life was over only to realize that he’s actually beginning a new chapter.  None of these individuals have any particularly reason to be loyal, it’s just who they are.  That’s loyalty in its rawest form.

Many might be interested in Isabellae’s backstory and why she started the journey she’s on.  We learn a lot about Isabellae and her family through a series of bright and immortal flashbacks portrayed largely through an eye-catching red and white contrast.  Her father was a warrior through and through and died a noble death in an important battle, but not before training Isabellae in the important techniques of a warrior.  Isabellae recklessly tried to find her father, and it cost her her mother.   Her mother was a powerful Gaelic sorceress persecuted in Japan because of her magic and bright red hair.  She trained Isabellae’s sister Siuko in the ways of sorcery before the townspeople killed her.  In many ways, Isabellae and Siuko’s parents set them on this path, but Isabellae has had to make numerous choices and is given many opportunities to walk away.  Has Isabellae become part of a larger destiny, or has the destiny become a part of her?  That’s up to you to decide.

The comic medium is so great because of its ability to manipulate time and space separately and simultaneously, and Isabellae capitalizes on that. The reason the book feels so much like a dance is because of its unique and varied sense of rhythm.  There are some scenes that feel like a normal comic book where characters move through space and time at a normal rate, as though you were watching a TV show or movie.  In other scenes, however, Isabelle appears to move through long periods of time in the same location.  This is particularly effective when Isabellae and her companions are on a boat, and you can sense emotions and relationships shifting over time even though they haven’t moved or change locations.  Other scenes, on the other hand, appear to traverse large amounts of space in a single moment.  This is especially true for combat scenes, where Gabor beautifully draws Isabellae killing numerous individuals in a few seconds even though they can be a few dozen feet apart.  Compared to the slower, softer, and more drawn out conversational scenes aboard the ship, these combat scenes are explosive, sharp, dynamic, and brutal.

Isabellae is a fairly dense book, containing a lot of information, culture, tones, history, and character even in its 160 pages, but none of it feels like setup.  Even the pages with heavy dialogue still allow the visuals to shine through and make sure that every word has meaning, although one can imagine the delivery would be even more exquisite in the book’s native French. It’s able to masterfully juggle an impressive amount of elements without losing control, and it plays with your emotions extraordinarily well.  It’s a book everyone can derive meaning from, whether it be historical, spiritual or emotional.  It plays with familiar tropes and atmospheres, but weaves them together into something totally unique.  Something about Isabellae is guaranteed to speak to everyone in different ways, and that’s a really special accomplishment.

Gabor is a master with world-building, color, and tone.  Every shot, from a broad and expansive landscape to a closeup slice from a katana, is drawn with an immaculate sense of care and detail.  The color palette is extremely deliberate and jaw-dropping because Gabor seems to find new ways and color combinations to use colors to capture your attention on every page, whether it be a panel in a completely different palette or a cleverly using lack of color to great effect.  Every moment of Isabellae is both heavy and meaningful.  Isabellae isn’t just a character, she’s a person, and you can feel her beyond the panels thanks to Gabor’s brilliant artistry.

Isabellae Vol. 1
Is it good?
Raule and Gabor bring us into Isabellae's beautiful and emotional journey through her own spirituality, family, and culture.
Whether you get it in the album or hardcover format, Isabellae is a refreshingly dense read.
Gabor pulls off some of the best and most versatile artwork you'll see in comics.
Raule is able to give weight and meaning to every line.
A beautiful exploration of numerous themes effortlessly juggled with character and heart.
Art should always be appreciated in its rawest, most original form, and the translated dialogue might have added a bit of clunkiness to the delivery.
9.5
Fantastic
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