Whether friends, foes, or strangers, the relationship that people have with their father colors their entire view of themselves and the world. Dealing with this most fundamental of issues, Vera Greentea takes on the concept of fathers in a three 10-page stories in the compilation Papa. Veering slightly from the more commonplace perspective of an adult looking back at the actions of their father through the eyes of their younger self, Papa instead directly looks at the father/child/family relationship through the awareness of the father’s themselves.
Each of the three stories is set in a fantastical world, with the amount of non-realness varying story to story. Papa, sharing a name with the compilation, is the closest to our own reality. In this story the son of Professor Black finds the body of the caped super hero The Tempest washed up by the shore of their waterfront home. Having worked on The Tempest’s biography for several years, Black is over enthusiastic about the poetics of his son’s discovery and oblivious about the trauma that the direct confrontation with death may have caused his son. His cold academic approach to this situation and to his family takes a supernatural twist, as his child tries desperately to find a path into his father’s awareness. Even with this grand turn, Professor Black cannot see the value in his son, past what opportunities this unusual situation may have to offer.
Drawn in a contemporary style more Vertigo than Marvel, the illustrator Joseph Lacroix plays with the confined space of the home with darkness being pierced by yellow glow of illumination, working well within the metaphorical structure of the story and adding complexity to the visual storytelling.
In a very different illustrated space crafted by Ben Jelter, The Princess and the Robot unfolds in a past-future, with the world taking cues from a sepia hybrid late middle ages. Here a monarchical reign is at odds with monolithic robot that is threatening to destroy the kingdom. Previously the robot has been appeased with sacrifices of children from the kingdom, but has upped his ante and demanded the princess be sacrificed and in return he will make long-standing peace. Scientists assure the king that they can provide temporary modifications to his princess, but science and victory often come at a cost.
In The Princess and the Robot, Greentea is at her best creating quickly a believable world and an engaging dilemma. In this, as with the others stories in the collection, the under current is the contemplation of sacrifice in relationship to the family. In The Princess and the Robot, a sacrifice of a peasant child is without thought, but the sacrifice of the King’s own daughter is a completely different circumstance. Who is sacrificed, a child or a father, varies from story to story, as do the implications to all who are involved.
Nightbirds, as the last story in the collection, is perhaps the least successful. Survivors of an apocalypse (that could be either spiritual or environmental in its origin) hang on to their existence and struggle to make do while the father, a theological astronomer, and his scientific partner continue looking for a larger meaning or answer. The astronomer’s daughter is ill and the stress of the world and his daughter’s illness is tearing the family apart.
Illustrated by Lizzy John in a fashion that seems a fusion between comics and children’s books (such as The Polar Express) both the pictorial style of the world and the verbal exchanges feel flat because they are too predictable. The arguments are too expository for the sake of informing the reader of the background details, and the arguments are the type that seem to always happen with families in a post apocalyptic storyline; an irresponsible father argues for his importance against the burden of the wife who is barely holding it all together. Bundled with the other stories this rounds out the book, but Nightbirds would have the toughest time standing as an entity of its own.
The form of exceptionally short stories is often tougher, not easier, than a full issue. Creators need to contend with the delicate balance of creating meaning, character and environment in a small amount of panels. For the most part, Greentea deals with this form well, but relies too heavily of the ending equaling the epiphany, in a The Twilight Zone “gotcha” approach. Similar to The Twilight Zone, her endings always have a twist of otherworldliness, but in these three stories the surprise is from the fathers’ moral awareness in relationship to their previous decisions.
These complaints are not deal breakers, actually far from it. Overall Papa is an engaging, if quick, read with a keen sense of timing and character development. Fathers, in Greentea’s world are not completely the traditional patriarchal heroes or villains, who would be at home in a comic setting. Instead they are mortal men, making choices about themselves and their families. Coupled with concept art at the end, the book is a nicely constructed contemplation on fatherhood that emphasizes the craft and time devoted to creating quality short form comics.