Thieves & Kings
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Thieves & Kings vols. 1 & 2, by Mark Oakley, TPB, © 1996-97, I-Box Publishing
Thieves & Kings is an interesting fantasy comic, in that it deals with serious situations but its protagonists are young teenagers. It takes place in the fictional, medieval land of Asaria, and the main character is a 14-year-old boy named Rubel, who fancies himself a thief.

Returning after a 4-year journey abroad, Rubel finds himself alone and caught up in city intrigue. The King is deathly ill, his evil son is making a bid to claim power with the help of black magic, and the princess, the appointed heir, to whom Rubel had pledged himself years earlier, has disappeared. Plus, a mysterious woman named the Shadow Lady seems to be bent on stealing Rubel's soul.

There's another thread as well: A thousand years earlier, a young man named Quinton Zempfester fancied himself a wizard. Everyone else fancied him a madman, so he was packed off to live with a family in the town of Millbrook, where he took an apprentice, a girl named Heath Wingwhit. They the local kids engaged in assorted mischief surrounding Quinton's delusions. Or were they delusions? For it seems the Shadow Lady is acquainted with Quinton, and it turns out that Quinton would be one of Rubel's mentors - a thousand years later.

Rubel's escapades are played as high adventure, as he spends extended sequences evading the Prince's men. But his adventures are genuinely dangerous, and the book makes clear that Rubel is in fact playing for his life. Rubel realizes this too, and like most 14-year-old boys sometimes proves not to be emotionally up to the challenge. In fact, at one point Rubel is shot in the abdomen with a quarrel!

The Quinton/Heath sequence is largely played for humor, and walks a fine line between treating Quinton as a madman or a wizard. Although the reader strongly suspects the truth, the outstanding dialogue and outlandish personality that Quinton projects carries us right along with everyone else. As with Rubel, Heath is a realistic young person who sometimes finds herself in over her head. Thieves & Kings employs an unusual comic book technique of moving between graphic storytelling and illustrated, typeset prose. Unlike, say, the comic book Cerebus, which uses text mainly as an aside to fill out the story's background, Thieves & Kings tells whole scenes and stories in its prose, and some sequences shift from graphic to prose storytelling. It's very jarring at first, but seems to work better as the story progresses and Oakley gets a feel for his approach.

Oakley's artwork somewhat resembles Manga in the simplicity of facial features, although he pays considerably more attention to proper anatomy and form. His backgrounds - particularly the panorama shots of the city - are often gorgeous. He doesn't often cut loose with fantastic fantasy elements, but the few times he does are very effective.

These collections are the first two volumes of an ongoing comics series. I'm looking forward to more!

Reviewed August 1997

Thieves & Kings' publisher, I Box Publishing, has its own Web site.

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