Beyond The Ordinary created by Nelly Karlsson
As comics have advanced as a medium, there is stronger dedication to "maturing" or making them more "adult", either by including darker, taboo content or complex themes and story structure. This has created a mountain of interesting stories such as Maus, Watchmen, Preacher, Saga, and Fun Home. However, there is also content of similar aesthetics that is puerile. Spider Man: Reign and Fukitor come to mind, lousy comics trying hard to be adult, but are actually immature and amateurish. Like any medium, there is the good and bad of darker content.
Unfortunately, with this emphasis on growing the medium to be taken seriously as art, many comic creators have forgotten the value of comics for children and young adults. I love that Saga tells a story full of sex and violence while delivering serious social/political commentary, but Ms. Marvel reminds me how awesome being a teenager can be. Who is to say that children/YA literature can't be serious in terms of themes and stories? Mariko and Jillian Tamaki's This One Summer, much like the Harry Potter book series, proves this point. The lack of notable kid comics is sad and only further highlights the puerile adult content as a sign of immaturity for the medium. Whether or not kid comics are serious literature or just good fun, they are needed. Art only achieves true greatness when it has content for everyone.
This is why I'm happy to have discovered Beyond The Ordinary by Nelly Karlsson, a young adult series about adventure, growing up, and Scandinavian mythology delivered with cute, story-time art.
The first thing in this series that grabbed me was the art. It has a charm to it that reminds me of my childhood memories of storybooks and animation films. It has a classical look, one that invokes childhood nostalgia and fantasy. Now, art that is nostalgic isn't inherently good. Good nostalgia looks to the past to move forward into the future. Bad nostalgia looks to the past to remain in place out of an inability or refusal to accept change. The latter always fails because its stagnant, an affliction that kills art.
Karlsson achieves good nostalgia in Beyond The Ordinary, and the best part is that she doesn't have to do much, just simply take the Mother Goose aesthetic and put it in a modern setting. There are modern clothes, video game consoles, computers, etc. It does not conflict with the art style. It's not timeless per se, but perhaps the style maintains an appeal that can easily be implemented into modernity.
Interestingly, Beyond The Ordinary is in black and white. Some might think that limits the art's capabilities, but this is incorrect. Karlsson's choice of black and white over color is enriching for the comic by highlighting the expressive line art and inking.
This works in fleshing out the countryside setting of the comic. In both the recognizably human areas of living such as public school and shopping malls, and the uncanny forest of mystical beings, the reader is allowed to look at and ponder the myriad of details. It helps that the comic begins in the winter months. A blanket of snow causes a strong contrast between black and white. The white is so omnipresent that when drawings in black appear, creating shape out of nothing, the reader's eye focuses on them and observes details closely. This fascination does not stop with the start of the spring and summer chapters, but continues on with even more for the reader to gaze at the details of tress, grass, and other forms of vegetation. This appreciation of detail, of creating something out of a blank white surface, arguably could not be achieved with the inclusion of color.
This same appreciation can be found with character design and movement. Each character is unique in their appearance, especially the mythological creatures. There are the Wights that look like gnomes but with fangs; Hilda, a Skogsra; and an old witch with, um, special endowments.
Have fun trying to sleep tonight, folks.
This does not mean, however, that human characters are given less effort. While lacking mythological fascination, they are distinct from each other. Both character types also share attributes of lively animation and expressive emotions. It's similar to the classical animations such as Looney Tunes and Disney. Movement and facial expression is exaggerated, especially during moments of heightened emotion. For example, Beive here, when she mistakes a wight for a rat.
Her eyes and mouth are wide. Her arms and legs flail madly in a state of panic. Accompanied with the motion lines, this image expresses emotion and movement in a way that grabs the reader and, probably, invokes a chuckle from them. The art choice is perfect for such moments and shows how much Karlsson does with just black and white.
The black and white artwork also makes for beautifully designed fantasy scenes. At one point, Beive is dreaming of going out to the lake with her friend Pierre. Suddenly, Pierre falls into the lake, and Beive dives in after him. What transpires is an attack from monstrous mermaids. This scene is done with heavy inking, lots of gray and black. The design of the mermaids is quite terrifying, and the darkness of the lake around Beive and Pierre heightens the sense of danger as they struggle to fight back against them.
A lot of action takes place, and it's all well drawn, panned out smoothly, and never once feels clunky or hard to look at. Yet again, it's arguable that the reason it's so well done is the lack of color. Color is great, but sometimes it can muddle up a scene. Then again, it can be true vice versa. Color or not, it depends on how the artist walks their walk, and in Beyond The Ordinary's case, Karlsson is walking like the mouse is a ballroom dancer.
The story centers around Beive moving to the countryside, meeting new people, and encountering the various mythical creatures that live in the woods. The beginning does a fantastic job of first grounding the plot in reality and then slowly introducing the fantastical elements. It's established that Beive is an angry child, both because of the awkwardness of moving to a new home and school, and the recent death of her father. Now, not all children lash out anger while grieving, and I don't know how accurate Beive's anger is to this kind of scenario, but it was nice to have this kind of complication early on. That doesn't mean Beyond The Ordinary starts off on a melancholy note. This isn't Newbery award territory with dead pets and childhood depression in every corner. It's more like this helps define Beive's character. It helps that humor is ever present. Yes, Beive goes around huffing and puffing, but it's shown in a way that the reader laughs at. Even when Beive is being mean to the shy Pierre, one finds her enduring more than annoying. Her anger is understandable, and the way she expresses is more of an invitation to further care about her. Beive is not just a cardboard cutout. She is a complex human being with a wide rage of emotions. In fiction, complexity of character is not always the best way to make a character likeable, nor are the best characters always likeable (hint, hint Humbert Humbert), but it is a good way to make a character enduring. This enduring factor is present in all of the characters. Part of it is their designs, part of it the hijinks they get up into, and some of them personality quirks such as Beive's.
Later on, Beive enters the enchanted forest. The enchantedness is introduced subtly. It is easy for the reader to miss unless they are looking closely at the art. When Beive leaves, her arms inexplicably grow feathers and look like wings. This and many other crazy scenarios happen to Beive each time she enters the woods. They're fun to read as each new scenario is different from the other. They tend to lead to bigger adventures for Beive and her friends and family. Also, these wacky scenarios are reflective of her internal struggles. Beive starts off in emotional turmoil. As a result, she is going to encounter equally tumultuous misadventures. This is natural in many young adult adventures and of stories in general because basic storytelling places emphasis on the idea that internal conflict is solved via external conflict. Something is wrong with the character personally, so they have to solve an external conflict, an item to retrieve, an enemy to defeat, and it is supposed that solving the external conflict will lead to solving the internal conflict. For example, Alice In Wonderland has Alice suffering from the pains of growing up, so she is thrown in the middle of Wonderland and must go through a number of obstacles to reach home and gain a better sense of self. This double-layered conflict is present in Beyond The Ordinary.
On the surface, both Alice In Wonderland and Beyond The Ordinary are seemingly random. Things just happen because they do. However, anyone that has closely read Alice knows that it makes its own kind of sense. There is a pattern, there is a point, and a clear path to where the story is heading. The same cannot be said of Beyond The Ordinary, unfortunately. There are aspects of the story that cause it to be unclear. First off, Beive goes from constantly angry to easygoing by the end of winter. She makes friends with Pierre and becomes adventurous. However, these changes are abrupt. Beive goes through some crazy stuff, but it doesn't seem to mean anything to struggling with her father's death. In fact, it only gets mentioned once and doesn't reemerge as an actual problem until summer. This isn't satisfying storytelling because Beive goes through an unearned change. Furthermore, now that this issue is brought up, it gets muddled with all the other personal conflicts happening with significant side characters. The reader is not given the joy of focusing on a central internal conflict and witnessing it play out. It could be argued that a multitude of internal conflicts are going on and still be satisfying. I agree, but it isn't working here.
Another factor that is seriously hindering the story is structure. The structure for each chapter is a different month in the year. It's interesting, but does not work here because the transition is not tight. The first chapter change is from January to February, and it doesn't indicate how many days passed between them. If anything, the February chapter picks right off where January left off, like just the very next day. These uneven transitions add to the disorder of character growth. The very next chapter shows the characters have changed without the previous chapter showing how that change came to be. A chapter has a beginning that introduces a character's internal conflict and external conflict, a middle that plays out the external conflict, and an ending that wraps up the external conflict without properly doing the same for the internal conflict. As a result, characters become enjoyable only at a surface level. Speaking for myself, I love their designs, enjoy their antics, but I'm not fully invested in them. If the story structure is going to work, the reader must have scenes of growth played out so that they make sense in the next chapter.
Despite all these flaws, Beyond The Ordinary is fun to read. That's the most important part, especially for a kids' comic. The series is full of adventure and humor. Karlsson keeps fresh with a new conflict, a new obstacle for her characters to overcome without repeating herself. Each character is a unique individual. Beive is a sarcastic, adventurous girl; Pierre a shy, adorable nerd; Hilda a mysterious and cunning creature; even the more minor characters are enjoyable in their own ways. A lot of Scandinavian folklore is incorporated, especially with the various creatures that show up. It doesn't seem that there is going to be any meta-commentary with placing mythological creatures in a modern setting ala Gaiman, but it's a creative scenario for children's stories. It's terrific that Karlsson decides to do this without pandering to fake ideas of what needs to be in children's entertainment, specifically the grossness of adding meaningless pop culture references that don't add to the story at all.
The winter section of the story doesn't have a solid story so much as just a series of hijinks. Karlsson seems to be testing the grounds, trying to figure out what to do with her story. As I noted before, it's a missed opportunity to develop Beive, however what she does with her art and creating both interesting characters and adventures is as fun as anything from Disney. Beginning in Spring, there is a storyline involving kidnapping and the forest creatures figuring out how to solve this. Naturally, Beive and Pierre get involved. It's not as solid as it could have been, but it is an indication that Karlsson is growing as a storyteller. I think this is why I have to recommend Beyond The Ordinary more than anything else. Yes, it's deeply flawed, but it's also watching in real-time as an artist struggles and achieves growth. It's a thrilling metamorphosis to witness.
Beyond The Ordinary may be imperfect, but the art is wonderfully classic and the story full of adventure. It's an important entry in the burgeoning market of kids comics. If you're looking for webcomics for young readers, or just good comics on the light-hearted side period, then this is something you should be reading.