Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
I have a very precise and personal reason for wanting to see this comic collected into trade paperback. I want to find out how it ends.
I’m not sure what or who made me decide to buy the first three issues of Gifts of the Night in one fell swoop that day back in 1999, but I do have a distinct memory of plunking down the cash for all of them at once, figuring no doubt that I would be back in a few weeks for the final issue.
Alas, for reasons that have since slipped out of my brain, I was unable to return to the store and by the time I did, said comic had come and gone. I’ve been thus far unable to find that elusive fourth issue, though, to be fair, it’s not like I’ve been trying very hard.
Still, even though my reading of the work is only 3/4th complete, I feel I can say with some confidence that Gifts of the Night is a comic worthy of bringing back into print.
The four issue mini-series was written by Paul Chadwick, with John Bolton handling the painted interiors and cover. Chadwick, of course, is best known as the creator of the Concrete series, about the gentle man trapped in the body of the monstrous stone robot. He’s done other side projects over the years (including a stint working on the Matrix MMORPG), but Gifts is one of the select few collaborative comics projects he’s done.
Gifts tells the story of Reyes, a courtly scholar in a fictional medieval European-style kingdom who tutors the king’s seemingly simple-minded son, Magdin. A bookworm at heart, Reyes is more or less content with his lot until one of his lessons inspires Magdin to have a “vision.” The king’s interpretation of said vision leads in turn to very successful military campaign, which in turn leads to the young prince being dubbed a seer and prophet.
The king thus comes to rely heavily on his son, and, by extension, on Reyes, who begins to grow a more than a bit drunk with power and feeds his student with stories about Alexandria in the hopes of making the kingdom a haven for scholars. He also takes a shine to Magdin’s pretty nursemaid. But there are those in the king’s court who are much more cunning than Reyes and do not take lightly to having their own agendas pushed aside in order to meet the whims of a young boy and his naive teacher.
It’s a pretty straightforward fable about the dangers of dabbling into politics and the unintended victims we create in our grasp for power (there’s a subplot about a Jewish-like religious sect that Reyes has uncomfortable ties to). Chadwick, however, keeps the story from feeling plodding or rote through his deep understanding of Reyes, who narrates the tale. Although his language might be ornate, Reyes’ temptation and guilt are all too recognizably human. Chadwick also manages to unfold his tale subtly, with a decided low-key tone, to ensure that the story does not get too embroiled in over-the-top melodrama.
Another reason the comic works as well as it does is because of Bolton’s abundant use of visual metaphor. There’s not a simile or figure of speech that Bolton does not render in lush colors. When Reyes says he mouth is sewn shut, sure enough we see criss-cross threads over his lips. When the king complains his treasury is being bled financially, blood oozes forth from the top of his head and trickles down. And when Reyes later feels betrayed and wounded, shards of glass stick out from his face and hands.
Such literalism could easily sink the book, but Bolton manages to make it work rather well. Part of that is due to his talents both as an artist and as a storyteller. This approach, however, also mirrors the young child Magdin’s confused and often literal interpretations of the tales he is told by Reyes and others. Thus, we are seeing the story though Magdin’s eyes even though Reyes is the one narrating the tale, adding an extra layer of identification to the story.
Vertigo has a veritable warehouse full of never-collected mini-series that deserve a second look. Gifts of the Night is at or close to the top of that pile. Or at least it should be. If for no other reason than I can finally discover how the blamed thing ends.
For another take on the series, go here.