UPDATE: Princeless has been nominated for two Eisner awards, Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12), and Best Single Issue (Or One-Shot) for issue #3. The results will be announced on July 13 at Comic-Con International. Here's hoping such an awesome book will get the recognition it deserves!
During our monthly round-up of the best comics to come out in February, we came across one of only two books that have thus far earned a perfect 10 out of 10 on our scale. It's Jeremy Whitley's Princeless from Action Lab, which just completed its initial four-issue debut and will be returning to continue the story this fall.
The book turns the classical fairy-tale story on its head...we really didn't want to type that sentence, you know? Every time someone says that sentence, they're either A) a heartless marketing department or B) have no idea what they're talking about. They said the same thing about Tangled, which is a great flick, don't get us wrong, but it's still a standard fairy tale in most senses of the term.
Princeless follows the adventures of Adrienne, a princess of color trapped in a tower waiting for rescue. This, we learn, is not so much from the machinations of an evil witch but rather the accepted courtship practices of the kingdom. Every time one of her sisters turned 16 years old, her parents would imprison her in a tower, set a dragon to guard the tower and wait until the least dead prince managed to rescue her to award her hand in marriage.
Adrienne points out the absolute ridiculousness of this whole setup, not the least of it being that her parents have tried it with five previous sisters and not one has yet been rescued. Her mother agrees with her, and on her 16th birthday they throw her a big party, put a sedative into her dinner and then it's off to the tower.
Luckily, Adrienne finds a sword left by her twin brother, who knew that their father was going to put her in the tower regardless so he pretended to betray her in order to be tasked with imprisoning her himself, allowing him to leave the sword. Adrienne manages to convince her dragon guard that the system is broken, and that they should go out and save Adrienne's sisters themselves instead of waiting for scores of young knights to die in an asinine ritual.
"I had been toying with the idea of Princeless for a while, but it finally reached its critical mass with The Princess and the Frog, of all things," said Whitley via e-mail. "While so many people had been hoping to have a black princess in a Disney movie for so long, it seemed like the actual movie was a denunciation of that clamor. It bothers me that the creative minds of Disney can imagine a black character and a fairy-tale princess, but they couldn't imagine them as one character. Instead their "black princess" is a poor girl from New Orleans who goes on a voodoo-inspired adventure. Why can't the black princess be a fantasy princess from a far-off land who has fantasy adventures? Mulan and Pocahontas are also animated historical fiction."
So in a sense what he's done is as old school as it is daring. Princeless is a classic adventure, full of sword fights and fantastic beasts, but it's also an exploration of really thinking about the world that you inhabit. To put it in layman's terms, it's regularly checking the batteries in your bullshit detector so that you know that it will work in an emergency.
For instance, the princes of the world don't get a much better deal. Their role is as set in stone as Adrienne's is supposed to be. Though they do get some glory from it, there's also a lot more being burned and eaten alive. Any deviation from this rigid code of behavior is punished. It's like being in a cult.
"What always leads to this?" asked Whitley. "Parents. The King and Queen (mostly the King) have certain expectations about the way their children ought to behave and their forcing their children to conform to that model. I'm a parent now myself (only briefly, though) and I understand the urge to push, but I feel like pushing the kid takes away options you never even knew they could have."
The best example of this is the character of Bedelia, who becomes Adrienne's sidekick in the third issue. Bedelia is a half-dwarven blacksmith who secretly does all her father's work because he has become a bitter drunk. Women are forbidden to be blacksmiths in this universe, but otherwise she and her father will starve.
However, unlike Adrienne, Bedelia continues to try and live up to society's expectations while at the same time guiltily operating in direct opposition to them. The concept of women's liberation is as foreign to her as can be. When Adrienne asks her for armor to help in her quest, Bedelia proudly shows off her women warrior collection... all of which are ridiculous parodies of comic book heroines like Wonder Woman.
Adrienne points out how leaving your torso unarmored is pretty detrimental to not getting stabbed, and the idea hits Bedelia like a ton of bricks. "You mean," she says, "just because a warrior is a woman she doesn't have to wear a chain-mail bikini?" A door to a whole new world opens to the pixie-like girl and she throws out all of her previous work to craft a suit of magnificent armor Isildur would've killed to own.
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Bedelia is one of the greatest characters we've ever read in comments. She vacillates from scatter-brained teenager to quippy superhero. Our favorite line in the whole comic so far comes from her as she prepares to make Adrienne's armor: "I'm getting my tools. Be naked when I get back."
One more. Adrienne: "What can we do now?" Bedelia: "I'll pretend I'm a lion and you pretend you're a rhino and we'll have a fight... I get bored a lot, okay?
"Bedelia is not a princess, not in the least," said Whitley. "However, as we discover, she is no less in need of saving. Fairy tales are notorious for taking place in households with missing mothers and benevolent, imperfect fathers. Bedelia is not living in that fairy tale. Her father has not taken well to being left alone and it takes a toll on how he treats Bedelia. Bedelia, on the other hand, has worked furiously to keep him and their blacksmith afloat. In a lot of ways, she's the anti-Adrienne. Adrienne makes a point out of rebelling loudly and suddenly against a life of boring luxury. Bedelia has suffered quietly and kept her real adventures inside her head."
Princeless is about finding out who you are outside of other people's perception of who they think you ought to be. It's a gift of a book that will delight fans of all ages. If no one picks it up for an animated series, we'll know that the real world is stupid.