Do you like magical girls? What about a magical girl gang that eschews spell casting and card collecting for spiked shoulder pads and giant scythes? If this sounds like your jam, Crystal Fighters from Jen and Tyler Bartel is the series for you.
Crystal Fighters is great series for young readers, especially young men and women looking for female characters who aren’t afraid to take a punch and throw one back. Stella, the series’ protagonist, stumbles on a secret fight club inside a magical girl-themed virtual reality game and finds the merciless arena right up her alley after rolling her eyes at the saccharine quality of the fantasy game. The series does a lot with the video game setting, with references that will appeal to gamers young and old, from Mario Bros. to Final Fantasy. Though the premise is inherently violent, the game setting also means there’s no bloodshed when the girls are brawling, keeping with the all ages nature of the series.
The cast of characters is refreshingly diverse, and the Bartels give them voices and physicality that exude the confidence needed for a virtual fight club. When we see them outside the video game at school, they inject them with more nuance and we get to see the real world challenges they face that feed into their online personas where they get a chance to vent their frustrations through combat. In doing so, the Bartels allow the reader to sympathize with the characters, especially Penelope, who’s framed as the antagonist of the series thus far.
The panels throughout the series are fairly large, making this a really quick read. There are only one or two word balloons in each panel and while this works well for younger audiences, older readers should expect to get through the series in a fairly quick sitting. The large panels also allow for Jen Bartel’s art to shine. The pencils and inks are pretty low detail throughout the series, but Bartel’s detailed coloring work adds extra dimensions to the art where the lines aren’t. Close-up panels on characters’ faces reveal the care put into letting the light fall in just the right spots on someone’s skin and the subtly different texture added for lip stick and eyebrows.
The costume designs throughout are also a great blend of fighting game character and Saturday morning cartoon hero, and Bartel provides plenty of splash pages with which she can show them off. Bartel also excels at rendering hair no matter the texture and takes the same amount of care in coloring it as she does skin, placing the lighting just right and gradating the colors to add another layer of detail to artwork.
Overall, Crystal Fighters makes for a great recommendation for people who love magical girls, girl gangs, or all-ages reads with a diverse, confident cast of characters. It’ll be a quick read for older readers, but anyone looking to grab a series for the young readers in their life looking for an action-packed, video game inspired comic should definitely check this one out!