Djeliya: A World Outside The Expected

I made the decision to stop reading Big Two comics and focus more on independent publications because I just felt like I was missing something. And that’s when I made the decision to drop whatever I was pulling at the Big Two (except for Immortal Hulk and Far Sector, since the former is ending this year and the latter ended recently) and go “full indie.”

 This wasn’t because I hated what I was reading. But I just wanted to go outside my comfort zone and read comics that I wouldn’t normally be reading.

And that’s when I stumbled upon Juni Ba’s Djeliya.

Sure, it was an independent comic and I wanted to read more stuff like that. What I did also notice, however, was the fact that it was a story influenced by African folklore, especially from West Africa. It wasn’t the kind of story I was expecting from an industry that is dominated by a certain ideology that I feel sometimes limits the art that comes from the creators. This is why Djeliya was a breath of fresh air.

 The story of Djeliya is about Mansour Keita, the last prince of a dying kingdom, and Awa Kouyaté, who is his “djeli,” a term for the royal storyteller. It takes place in a world that is in ruins because of a wizard. And the two embark on a journey to meet him and possibly restore the world to its prosperous golden age.

 I feel like this is a simplification of the story because there’s so much more to this graphic novel than that summary. There’s a very interesting world within this comic, with there being various stories about this world. This makes the world of Djeliya fully realised with such stories. There is a freedom to which these stories can be told. There is a beauty to their folkloric influence that makes them deeply enjoyable. Throughout Mansour and Awa’s journey, these stories pop up, whether they be told by Awa or whether they be a brief interlude, and they’re not a “distraction,” but they add to the book’s appeal, at least for me. And some of them had messages that I deeply resonated with.

I also appreciated how these stories give us a look into Mansour and Awa. The former struggles with feelings of inadequacy since his father, with whom he’s compared, is seen as one of the best rulers. By contrast, he’s viewed as a failure; it is as if his presence is a representation to the people of how his father’s kingdom is in decline. And yet, despite his struggles with that legacy, he trudges on. The theme of legacy is also prominent for Awa, who struggles with the fact that the djeli are no longer the esteemed storytellers they once were; they deliver stories devoid of the passion that art can inspire. And as Mansour’s moral fibre, it is difficult for her to guide him into making the right decisions in a world that is now broken.

 This is why I find it amazing how much Djeliya tells. It’s only a graphic novel and yet it is expansive. Every page of the book is always interesting in terms of what is being told, and this is where I want to point out how gorgeous the art is. Every panel and every image on the pages are a sight to behold, especially with regards to my earlier point about how the world is fully realised. Every character is distinctive in their own way, and there’s a beautiful visual language that informs the book, whether that be through the stylised depictions of the characters or through the lettering, which has an energy to it depending on the scene, whether it is a tranquil scene or a scene brimming with tension. And that’s not even mentioning the abundance of scenery porn.  

 I could go more in detail about Djeliya, and I don’t know this review does the book justice, but it’s beautiful with a story that pulls you into a world outside the West that you never thought would have existed. It’s a world full of exciting possibilities and a kind of storytelling that I don’t think I’ve ever taken note of in my lifetime of reading comics. And when I talk about the world outside the West, I am not talking about an Orientalist depiction. There’s an honesty to it that I don’t think I would have seen had this been written by someone who wasn’t as familiar with the inspirations as Juni Ba was.

This is why I read comics. I want to see creators flex their artistic muscles and do the sort of storytelling that reminds me of the passion that motivated them to create art. And there’s something personal about this comic. It’s like a friend beckoning you to take a look at this world that has a beautiful honesty to it.

 And it’s waiting for you.

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