Thursday, March 21, 2024

Review: Deadlier Than by Corey Brotherson, art by Jennie Gyllblad, Olivia Samson, Ted Brandt and Kit Buss

 A collection of graphic shorts that deliver a big punch in a small space.

I don't think I've ever read a graphic novel of short stories before, or at least not this short. WicDiv had that one issue that was bit more episodic... but it was also a lot chonkier than the rest of the series, and had a heavy reliance on text-only pages, so I'm really not sure it counts. Deadlier Than... however is a collection of three short stories told in comic form, connected by a theme of female strength, and tied together by short text interludes from the perspective of an injured spider. And that's great! More of that format please!

Graphic novels are always a bit tricky. Sometimes it's a series that never gets finished (RIP Ody-C). Sometimes it's a one-off that feels in an awkward position between too short to be long and too long to be short. Sometimes it feels like you spent a chunk of money for something you only spent 45 minutes reading. But somehow, doing three separate short stories really solved that problem here. It felt substantial, when you got three fully complete and coherent narratives in one book. There were natural pause points for me to put the book down and reflect on what I'd just read. There was a bridging motif that enforced those pause points. And when I finally did close it, I felt like I got three whole stories out of it, not just one, and that felt like a super worthwhile use of my money.

All in all, it's an A* from me for the format.

But onto the actual content.

These are three very different stories, spanning SF and F. We've got fairies, we've got robots and we've got aliens. So what joins them together? What makes this a collection, rather than just well... some things that have been collected? The cohesive force between them is the focus on the three, central, female characters and their strength, in whatever form that might take. Each of the three stories lasers in on a single event, a single encounter or episode, in which its character demonstrates, at her core, who she is in this world (wherever, whenever and whatever that world might be). There's some obvious physical strength at play, but there is also a focus on surviving adversity, and being able to adjust your thinking in the face of events that change your worldview. There are themes running through of self-doubt, of being misled, and having to live with the consequences of those revelations, all of which are surprisingly well-covered for the extremely short story-space they each occupy.

There are also three different art styles, and each one feeds into the vibe that story has - I particularly enjoyed the contrast of the more clean line style of the sci-fi future story and the loose, almost watercolour lightness of the story with the fairy protagonist. It's a format that lends itself well to that sort of playfulness, with the space to bend the form to accommodate the story, without having to commit to anything for all too long.

But there's also a fourth story. And this one is slightly different. It sits between the others, connecting their themes together, following a spider trapped in a garden longing for escape. This one is told primarily in text, white on saturated black background, and slower, more poignant than the others, told as it is in little episodes broken up by the brightness of the other stories. While all the tales in the collection have strong emotional through-lines - it's one of the things the collection does well - it is in the spider's story that I found the strongest emotional resonance, quite simply because it is pared down. It's a story that contains so little, it has distilled itself down to the finest grains of bittersweetness, and so manages to pack even more of a punch than its fellows, while occupying so little space. And where the others may leave some ambiguity, the spider's story does not, and sets the tone for the whole collection, your entrance to and your exit from it. You begin and end with crispness, visually and narratively, and I really enjoyed how that directed the reading experience.

Within the stories, there's also a lot to love. All three are very quick to give you a sense of their character and the general arc of their struggle. They trust the reader to roll with light worldbuilding (and reward that trust) and instead lean in heavy on character and tone, ensuring they deliver on their punchy intensity.

But there's obviously a downside to that, and because it is so world-building light, and each story is so short... you can't really ask any questions. What's there, if you confine yourself to solely the text and nothing more, is great. But really good stories, both long and short, leave you with the space to wonder and wander around the edges of them. This is the stuff that fanfiction is made of, after all. But because we don't get that here, because the decision has been made to prioritise immediacy of character and emotional arc over anything more external or concrete, once you pass the end of each story, it starts to flatten itself out in the memory. It only lives while the reader lives in it, and doesn't quite manage to stand on its own beyond.

I'm not sure this is even a flaw, exactly. It's a choice that needed to be made within the constraints the format demands. There simply is not space in a graphic novel, in a short-story style format, to do anything extensive, and so something needs to be prioritised. For me, I think all three of these made the right call, choosing as they did. I would rather fleshed out people with believable responses to problems than an expansive, thought-provoking world. Both is great, don't get me wrong, but if I have to choose, that's the choice I would make every time. So I don't think it's a problem here, exactly. But it is a limitation, and one to be aware of when reading it, especially if the reader is someone who prefers world-forward style narratives, because that simply isn't what we have here.

And that's what, for me, caps it at an 8 out of 10. There's ultimately something incomplete about the experience, when looking back at it. It gets the 8 for how it feels in the moment, and all its successes. But it goes no further because it simply cannot. If it had been a little longer, perhaps? Or done only three narratives? Maybe. Maybe then. 

Looking only within the constraints of itself, it absolutely sings, and is a worthwhile read. I just found myself, when I finished, when I pondered... not quite satisfied, in the end. But some things don't need to last forever. Read it for the moment, read it for the experience, and embrace that ephemerality.


The Math

Highlights: instantly emotive characters; well handled, interestingly used story structure; beautiful visuals that really play well with the vibes of their stories

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Brotherson, Corey, Deadlier Than, [Doodle Doole, 2019]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.