Spellbound Book 1 cover by Jean Dufaux, Jose Luis Munuera and Sedyas

Spellbound, Book 1

“Spellbound” is a series about Blanche, the daughter of the King of Middleland.  When he’s assassinated, she becomes the leader of the land, even over her brother.  Suddenly, she’s thrown into a war, has to walk away from her own life, and face possible mutiny from within.  While she curries favor with the people of her land, some have other plans for her….

Sound like fun?  Let’s take a look…

Breaking up is hard to do in Spellbound

Breaking up is hard to do in Spellbound…

 

The Written Stylings of Jean Dufaux

I don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” but this feels like an appropriate series for fans of that one. It’s a great blend of Medeival pageantry, Shakespearian plotting, and overwrought scripting.  You get the family at war with itself, the powers of “the other side” fighting amongst themselves, and a war on the march that might be out of control and impossible to win.

Yes, there are moments in Jean Dufaux’s script where it feels like characters are doing dumb things that they know are dumb for the sake of moving the plot in the direction the author needed to move it.  (There’s a poisoned drink near the end that’s especially silly like that.)  Some of the dialogue is on the nose and lands with a solid thud.  There are times I appreciate that, though, because I have a tough time keeping track of all the names.  Spelling out their relationships in the dialogue occasionally helps the reader keep up with the story, at the small cost of sounding a bit too expository.

I’m sure some might complain that this book is a collection of fantasy tropes and not a terribly new and imaginative story.  But as someone who doesn’t read or pay attention to too much fantasy stuff like this, that certainly doesn’t bother me.  It all feels new to me.  If you’re an old hand at this style of fantasy, maybe it won’t work as well for you.

Dufaux’s story isn’t exactly intricate, but there are three or four sides to keep track of and most of them are back-stabbing jerks.  Things you might expect to happen as you read the book get turned on their ear once or thrice.  So you’ll need to re-adjust your expectations and keep the relationships between characters straight. If only to keep those names straight in your headspace, I’d recommend reading this book in one sitting. It’s a lengthy 58 page opener, but it reads smoothly and quickly.

Early page of Spellbound

This is about as busy as a page gets in the series. Click to embiggen.

This isn’t the kind of Franco-Belgian comic where they pack every page with four tiers of panels. This feels more North American-inspired.  Pages are one, two, or three tiers of panels. They’ve very large panels without expository dumps that fill up whole pages.  There are times when characters tell each other what they already know to get that information out there, or where they talk to themselves for the same reason.  But those moments never feel like dead spots in the story.  That’s in part because your eye keeps flying across the page, creating extra movement where there is otherwise none.

Oh, and there’s also one terrific left turn about half way through the book that takes the reader’s expectations burns them in effigy. It’s done so matter-of-factly and so simply that it made me laugh (in a good way).  The plot point shows back up out of nowhere just after you’ve forgotten it, and then Dufaux ends it just as quickly.  Suddenly, you realize the book isn’t about that character relationship, but something else.

(I hope that’s all vague enough to not be a spoiler…)

By the time the book is over, there are lots of balls being juggled in the air, and at least two characters you want to see what happens next with.  While it isn’t always the smoothest or most elegant way to get there, I’m in.

 

The Art of Munuera: Designed vs. Animated

You’ll recognize the name Jose Luis Munuera attached to this title as artist from his self-written series, “The Campbells,” that I’ve raved about here previously.  (Volume 1, Volume 2)  This is a prior work, with a different feel. You can still tell it’s his work under there, but it pushed in a different direction.

The characters of “Spellbound” are not quite as animated as “The Campbells.”  They feel to me more like they’ve been designed than animated.  Their strength is in how they hold themselves and how easily differentiated one character is from another.  That’s a skill animators use, as well, of course. (Think of their silhouettes, for example.)

One of the best ways to draw this difference is to look at classic animation. Take a bit of video from a Wile E. Coyote short.  Watch the way he moves.  Watch his whole body shake when he eats earthquake pills.  Look at all the subtleties in the movements in his fingers and his ears and his tail.  It’s amazing movement and animation.

Compare that to something like “Sleeping Beauty.”  By that time, Disney was moving in the direction of designing everything strongly to make up for a bit of the animation they were losing.  Producing these movies was getting tougher, I guess.  While you didn’t get all the same rotoscoped subtleties you’d get in “Snow White”, particularly amongst the more imaginative Dwarfs, you instead got bright characters with strong designs who moved specifically across the super wide action frame.  It was carefully considered.  That’s why the animation in “Sleeping Beauty” is possibly my favorite of all those films. That’s because of the design and layout, not the animation.

Spellbound has a Maleficent-like character

Speaking of “Sleeping Beauty,” doesn’t she look a little bit like Maleficent?

The post-1948 UPA revolution already changed the literal landscape of shorts animation over at Warner Brothers.  Beautifully painted backgrounds to approximate reality behind the wisecracking animals got replaced by bolder, shape-driven backgrounds that were designed. I imagine they were quicker to produce, but they elevated skills in design and layout much faster.

With “Spellbound,” this series feels more designed than animated.  That is, characters act a little more stiffly and conservatively, but they have strong designs that don’t push Munuera’s style as far as “The Campbells” does.  It pushes his ability to frame a shot perfectly, or design a character to have an ominous look just from the way they stand, or the clothes they wear.  They’re not going to pantomime their intent…

But, then, “The Campbells” is more light-hearted and requires a different type of storytelling.  “Spellbound” is more grim and naturalistic, but the way Munuera draws buildings and random people doesn’t change that much.  The characters in “Spellbound” are slightly less cartoony.  Their mannerisms are often a little more reserved than the splashier “The Campbells.”

Spellbound v1 Haas House Introduction

This does not look like a Sketch-Up model that’s been drawn over, and I love it. The angle is interesting, the details on the ground and along the street outside are great, and the smoke coming off the candles is even interesting.

The other difference at first glance is that Munuera is adding some of his own shadows with ink washing in this series.  I’m a sucker for a good ink wash, but we don’t see it that much inside of comics series.  We see it more often in commissions and convention sketches, I think.  In comics, the only person I can think of off the top of my head to use it somewhat regularly is Tim Sale.

Not only does it give the colorist an idea of the lighting set-up in any particular panel, but it also adds a bit of texture to the page.  The ink wash isn’t completely solid.  It’s basically watercolor.  It can be controlled to look more consistent, but it will still have a bit more texture and irregularity to it that. It’s strength is determined by how watered down the ink is or how thickly it’s applied to the page. Munuera’s use of it is very slight. The shadows are there, but they don’t dominate the page. The colorist fits them in, pays attention to them, and works with them.  It’s fun to watch.

 

Sedyas

That’s the colorist’s name.  And I have to bring it up here because there is no better example of how important a colorist’s work is to a comic than what Sedyas does here.  Sedyas also colors “The Campbells,” yet the two books couldn’t look any more different, despite sharing an artist.

When you glance at a single page for each book, though, the first thing that hits you in the face is the coloring.  The work Sedyas does on “Spellbound” is vastly different.  It’s much more concerned with mood and lighting.  It may be overdone at times with the glowing lights, like what happens when a colorist learns a new Photoshop trick and applies it as often as possible.  The overall mood of every page, though, and the way the colors help to sell the story as feeling more real cannot be denied.  The color palette is much more restricted, with a preponderance of browns and greens and less vibrant colors.  Even when a house burns down or someone stands in front of a fiery pit, it still feels restrained and more desaturated than you might expect.

Sedges colors Jose Luis Munueras' art in Spellbound

Sedyas uses every trick in these two panels, from the glowing lights to the color holds to the blown out windows.

The colors also have a brushy appearance.  You can see it more in some panels than others, but there’s an almost water-colored look to the art.  You can see in spots the edges of whatever digital brush Sedyas used to color the book.  There’s also a lot of textures employed on everything from the folds of a shirt to hair to the spotlight of bright light on the wall behind characters.  It’s subtle when it needs to be, but also easily visible.  I like how it keeps the art “dirty” in a way, without overwhelming it.  The coloring truly complements the art, and that’s what you want.

The final feeling is like you’re watching a movie that’s gone through some pretty serious color correcting after filming to produce a specific look.  It takes a few pages to get used to, but then it feels comfortable and you can sit back and enjoy.  Honestly, in flipping through the book before reading it, I was concerned about this style.  I didn’t like the way it hid the art or looked so gloomy.  After reading the book more carefully, though, I realize that the art is clear as day.  Munuera’s style is a little restrained for this series compared to his bouncier ones elsewhere.  It’s not the coloring’s fault at all.

Spellbound Book One textures in Sedyas' coloring

The art in these two panels is a little simpler than usual, but the coloring fills in the gaps, including the textures on shirts, on the walls, and in the bushes.

Sedyas is showing great versatility between the two titles, using completely different styles to match the tone of the book.  That’s some serious skill.  Sedges is not a one trick pony.

One thing I should note here: I’m reading this book digitally. It’s not available in print.  If it does ever come to print in English, the publisher will need to be very careful about how the color comes out.  This book is a prime example of the style of coloring that’s going to work in digital far more than it does in print.  The paper is going to eat these colors alive.  I hope the French production of this book in print came out looking OK, because I can see what an absolute nightmare this book might be to read without a backlit screen.

 

Recommended?

If you’re into this kind of thing, yes. Medieval fantasy, “Game of Thrones,” family squabbles, wars, witches and spells, etc.

Does it have crossover appeal?  I’m not sure yet. I probably won’t know until I’ve read all four available books. There are a few rough spots with the dialogue, which might just be the problems with translating one language to another.  (I’m not blaming the translator.  Sometimes, there’s just no good way to Americanize something — or turn it into any language — without it losing its conversational tone.)

And Munuera’s art is still interesting to look at, but if you’re coming to this looking for something along the lines of “The Campbells,” you’re going to be surprised to see such a different take on the style here.

I think once you get into it, though, it all works.  You can push aside those initial hesitations and get lost in the story and all the twists and turns it takes.  There are a couple of very surprising moments in this story.  Go into it as cold as you can, and enjoy the ride.

Spellbound Book 1 by Jean Dufaux and Jose Luis Munuera cover

Click to buy on Comixology

 

(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #56.)

 

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