What is the greatest all-ages comic book you should be reading if you aren’t already?
Survey says: Princeless . . . and you didn’t even have to poll 100 people (that’s a Family Feud reference for those of you too young to remember Richard Dawson). Instead, read this review of the first trade book of the series and before you can say “let’s go crazy,” see if you don’t get struck with the urge to rush out and buy them all. We may not have a Wonder Woman movie yet, but this book may just make you forget that.
Princeless is the story of Princess Adrienne Ashe, a smart, funny, and capable black teenage princess who is continually challenging the preset roles and expectations cast upon typical storybook princesses, which she is expected to fill. We see her from a young age questioning the typical nonsensical things about the standard princess conventions (why are princesses always in towers waiting for suitors—wouldn’t the tower cost more than a dowry? and if the dragon guarding the tower is a wild animal, how do you get it to stay instead of wandering off or eating the princess?), right up until she is placed in her own tower on her 16th birthday.
Adrienne is strong minded and brave and finds the restrictive role placed on her to be nonsensical, and so she does the unthinkable: she thinks for herself. She enlists the aid of the dragon guarding her tower, escapes, and sets off on a quest to rescue her six sisters from their respective towers. She is joined along the way by Bedelia Smith, the half-Dwarf daughter of the blacksmith who has secretly been creating all his armor for the last few years. She makes new armor for Adrienne and the two ride off on Sparks the dragon to complete their quest.
Princeless has been nominated for two Eisner Awards—Best Single Issue and Best Comic for Kids Ages 8-12—as well as five Glyph Awards, winning the categories Best Female Character, Best Writer, and Story of the Year. Its creator and writer, Jeremy Whitley, is also known for his other series, Illegal and The Order of Dagonet. He has additionally written for IDW’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and My Little Pony: Friends Forever series as well as the NFL Rush Zone and GlobWorld comic series from Action Lab Entertainment, where he also serves as director of marketing and head of PR.
Princeless is funny and innovative and takes a satirical look at the conventions for female characters in comics, providing a much-needed means of both raising the strange questions that have rattled around in our heads for years (“Really? A chain-mail bikini for armor?!?”) while at the same time providing an empowering character for little girls and young women, especially those of color. Whitley described the impetus for the comics in an interview this way:
Princeless came from a confluence of issues I had. I’ve always had a lot of close geek girl friends and I’m always looking for strong female characters in comics to share with them. I think there just aren’t enough. When I married my wife, I got to know her younger sisters and some of her cousins. As young girls of color none of them had ever picked up a comic book (except my wife) and why should they? I can count on one hand the number of black women you can find on your comic book stand right now, not to mention the number who are positive portrayals. The same holds true for women of color in fantasy stories. I wanted my daughter to have comic books she could love the same way I’ve loved mine. Not to mention, I’m a little leery about the princess culture and what it actually teaches girls.
I enjoyed the way Princeless subtly—and some times not so subtly—commented on the social conventions around heroines, from the ridiculous (aforementioned chain-mail bikini) to the poignant (the meaning of fair). These are things we joke about in circles that care about issues for women and people of color, but it’s joking to make a point. I also really liked the inclusion of male counterparts who are not all either the dashing hero or the typical chauvinist, but rather a combination of different personalities, especially Adrienne’s brother, who seems to have moved away from following the typical princely path to a pursuit of words and poetry. He provides a good balance to Adrienne, and I hope to see more of him.
What I didn’t like as much was how many of the male figures were complete assholes. I know that many of my gender are, but I would rather have had a range of assholishness (that might be a word) rather than everyone lumped on one side. The king’s men are greedy and take advantage of the poor. The blacksmith is a drunk to the point that Bedelia does all the work, but with no explanation as to why; he had to have been good and hardworking at some point to teach Bedelia, and at the beginning of the story she hasn’t left or been overly critical of him, so you know there’s a story there. I, for one, would like to hear it. And the King is so Machiavellian he should be on Game of Thrones, yet he’s apparently not so bad that his subjects hate him or that his kingdom is in bad shape. He’s an overbearing and manipulative father, but to be a good ruler, he would have to be tempered with some level of wisdom and compassion that would be reflective of the state of his kingdom. A little more detail or explanation would make him more plausible and tragic versus just a foil to offset the princess.
Yet, despite this, I still very much like Princeless. I want to give a shout out to Emily Martin, who came on as the artist in Volume 2—Martin’s work is smart and vibrant and has a certain Elfquest homage flavor to it that I really appreciate, while also hearkening back to some of the old TSR artwork. She has a style that brings the characters to life and allows the story to flow freely. I’m not the biggest fan of work like that of Mike Allred or Paul Azaceta because I find them too busy; I find artwork that pops off the page and is bold and brilliant engages me the most, and Martin’s does that. You can tell the story just by viewing the images and I appreciate the talent that takes.
The book clearly has a message to convey, but it never gets to preachy or over the top, and it makes most of its points in subtle and humorous ways that make you stop and think rather than get mad or defensive. There are positive male characters as well, but the focus, as it should be, is on the young female characters. Adrienne demonstrates how to think for oneself and not be trapped by stereotypes while also helping others tap into their purpose in life. The language and imagery are age appropriate and have humor all ages can enjoy. Further, the messages and challenges for young girls of color will leap off the page and encapsulate the wisdom we parents want very much to impart. They will see themselves in these pages, and it will positively resonate with them.
If you have a daughter or a son or Prince, give them this book. For girls, it will send a empowering message. For boys, it will help them counter some of the blatant misinformation they are bombarded with at this young age. For Prince, there’s a lot of purple in it. This book is a great one for the whole family, and I can’t wait to read more.