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Fleen Book Corner: One Year At Ellesmere

Faith Erin Hicks has done a lot of graphic novels, and is one of the most reliable writer/artists we have working today; whatever the topic, whatever the genre, the book is going to be pretty to look at, consist of pages that serve the needs of the story, be cartoony enough to convey a range of action and moods, but not so much as to overwhelm the characters. One of her earliest works was The War At Ellsmere, and she’s recently reworked the visuals and tweaked the title, resulting in One Year At Ellsmere. The folks at :01 Books¹ were kind enough to send me an advanced review copy, and so we’re going to talk about it.

This is going to be a less than usual review (the original is a good dozen years old now, so you know what? it’s too late to worry about spoilers), and more a series of thoughts on what’s different. Hicks is not merely re-releasing an earlier work, but re-editing, or re-cutting it. Maybe the best analogy would be how some of the Star Trek series have been released with their SFX redone with modern technology to look good in resolutions that are commonplace today.

And then there’s the title; the story of a scholarship student arriving at a prestigious private school and being targeted by wealthy Queen Bee girls, there’s a definite shift in emphasis from The War to One Year. The former implies that Juniper was engaged in a period of conflict which ended; as she’s the protagonist, she presumably prevails. The latter implies that Juniper made it through a year, but there’s more in front of her, and the antagonists will surely not just tuck tail and leave her alone in coming years. It’s the difference between a one-and-done bad time in your life and the more complicated reality that you don’t solve all your problems in middle school.

Hicks hasn’t completely redrawn Ellsmere, although there are fairly obvious differences between War and Year; in the back matter she shows a pages-long process of redrawing the background of the opening splash page, finishing with a side-by-side comparison between an original page (at right) and the redrawn version (left); the inking is much less heavy — a practical consideration as Year has picked up an expert coloring job by Shelli Paroline — but there are other differences as well. Although Juniper is less redrawn than the tableau in front of her, she is different — her posture is less stiff, and crucially she’s reoriented on the page to a more forward position. In the original, she’s hanging back, in the redraw, she’s moving into the unknown. Even the looming tower in the distance is left perfectly geometrical and seems more plausibly real in the new version.

And although it’s not really obvious from behind, Hick’s style has evolved from rather Scot Pilgrimesque in War in the past dozen years. Reading one of Hicks’s later books — Pumpkinheads or an installment from The Nameless City, you know what Hicks’s style is like. Pick up a copy of War today and you’ll do a doubletake before you necessarily recognize the art as hers, much like suddenly seeing an original model sheet for Bugs Bunny. Hicks has almost split the difference here, bringing character designs into her modern style while retaining elements of the original, particularly around the eyes.

The story is as sharp as ever, but the reworking/remastering/rewhatever of the art makes it look more assured, resulting in an even stronger narrative impact. If you’ve got a copy of War on your shelf, strongly consider picking up Year, and if you don’t have it already, there’s never been a better time to read what is basically the exception to the rule that artists shouldn’t worry about going back to redo completed work.

One Year At Ellsmere is available in bookstores now; it’s highly recommended for anybody that would appreciate a go away to school and deal with bullies story that unlike, say, Harry Potter, doesn’t have 1000+ pages of bloat before you get to the end of the story. So basically, everybody.

Spam of the day:

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¹ They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but do me a favor and check out Collen AF Venable’s cover design vs the original and tell me which has more shelf appeal.

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