In many contemporary societies there is a princess complex brought about by trying to fuse together a history (both real and narrative) of women having palaces, riches and not much influence with current society in which women are not objects to be acted upon, but the initiators of the action themselves. This “post princess” era has brought animated characters like Merida from Brave who is a tough archer that shuns a prearranged marriage and the real Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge who is not afraid to play field hockey and devote time to important charities. Into this field comes Princeless, a series by Jeremy Whitley, which is about to release its second trade paperback Book 2: Get Over Yourself.
Princeless is about Princess Adrienne, who had been locked in a castle by her father, King Ashe, until an appropriate suitor could arrive and slay the dragon placed in charge of her protection. Adrienne is not alone in this fate; all six of her sisters are subject to the same treatment. Bored of this unproductive lifestyle, Adrienne breaks free of her tower and goes on a quest to save her sisters. Book 2 starts with Adrienne on the road with her new friend and sidekick Bedelia, a feisty young metal smith, and her dragon Sparky. They are trying to save her sister Angelica, while alluding the group of men that the king has hired to assassinate the “man” who has killed Adrienne, not knowing the man that he is after and Adrienne are one in the same.
An all ages story, though one perhaps best geared to pre-teens, Princeless can be read in many different ways. It is a feminist/girl power read that still indulges the fairy tale world with castles, swords and an adorable pink dragon. It is also a title that presents a black monarch family, giving a much-needed additional source of representation of young, powerful, non-Anglo female characters. Most importantly, it is a humorous adventure tale that is an engaging read. Book 2 begins to unfold the relationship that Adrienne has with her sisters, starting with Angelica, “the most beautiful woman in all the land.” Each issue provides at least one action sequence in addition to its feminist discourse.
Readers see that Adrienne is agile enough with her new weaponry to fight off Sir Gahiji The Hunter and smart enough to battle a magical beast that is a curse placed on Angelica. The action is well paced and each issue leaves the reader with just the right amount of narrative tension to make them exited about the next issue. Illustrator Emily Martin infuses the book with a look that draws from Manga and the big eyed, big head look that is somewhere between Mark Ryden’s pop surrealism and Bratz dolls. Full of rich hues and easily defined action, Martin creates a space that is approachable and understandable by someone who is not part of a traditional comics audience.
In Book 2: Get Over Yourself, Whitley’s story deals with the complexity of inter-sister relationships in a way that is relatable to young women. What does it mean for Adrienne to be a princess and still not the most beautiful or important girl in the land or even in her family? Is it a problem that Angelica seems to enjoy the pedestal that society has seemed to place her on? Adrienne’s love for her sister is the variety in which concern for family exceeds logic. At the end of Volume 2, Issue 1, Roderick, a wondering poet Adrienne and Bedelia have met on the road, goes on and on about person whose “body is the shape the gods meant when they spoke the word woman.” In these panels, Adrienne is becomes visually more and more irritated, when it is revealed that the woman in question is her sister Angelica. Why is she “saving” someone that is adored by all of the land? It is simply because she is her sister and she loves her.
Adrienne is written as a smart young woman that takes people to task for not understanding her place in society and the politics of the series are direct and overt. A reoccurring joke is people approaching Adrienne and call her a “fair lady”, a term often used in stories about princesses, and she reminds them that “fair” is a term used for whites and that she is not “fair”.
The cover of Issue 2, which places a classic comic cover pictorial of Angelica on laying on top of a white tiger is torn open by the image of Adrienne emerging from inside of the comic proclaiming “This cover has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on in the book.” and “You guys are bringing the whole artform down when you do this!” This is perhaps my biggest complaint about the series. The dialog can feel too forced and didactic at times. The content’s message is great, but it does not always feel like it is the language of the character; instead it feels like Adrienne is acting as a surrogate of the adult author. How a young girl might actually express her concepts of gender and race may be different, more complex, if equally humorous and sassy.
This directness of message is somewhat in contradiction to the concept of the series, a liberation story of seven princesses. If feminist constructs are highly important, is it necessary to write a story about princesses at all? Should characters take on old tropes and use them to discuss change, or just take on new constructs and be the change that is desired? Princeless takes on that middle ground, creating a feminist princess with a pink dragon, a girl that can wield a sword but occasionally worry about her hair. Comics are not known for their attempts to lure in the female pre-teen demographic, and perhaps the fusion of fantasy and feminism will make them feel included in the comic sphere.
With the publication of Book 2: Get Over Yourself, Whitley has completed the arc of one of the sisters, but still has five more sisters (and a brother) to help rescue, so the series is far from over. It is a book that can be given to a daughter, a niece, a student, to get them involved with an ongoing series and feel confident that the content will be positive and enjoyable. There is the ongoing cultural stereotype of feminists being angry or incapable of humor, but Princeless is trying to create a new type of character that can be angry and funny and also insecure while being tough; a girl who is real while living in a fantasy universe. Princeless may stumble here and there, but is a book of good intentions and charming execution.