There is a castle hidden deep in the woods, uninhabited by humans for centuries and now run by animals. It’s not a fairytale existence for the worker animals, though, their daily grind consisting of hard physical labour and constant belittlement at the paws of the privileged four-legged leaders. It’s the animals ruling other animals, and it’s a nasty piece of work if anyone steps out of line!
The first five issues of Ablaze’s Animal Castle are now collected in hardcover form, giving us a much broader ‘field of study’ into this compelling comic title.
Writer Xavier Dorison (Red One, Long John Silver, Asgard, etc.) teams up with artist Felix Delep (Miss Bengalor, etc.) to present this story of resistance, persistence, and malicious compliance in the land of the imprisoned.
And here’s the gist of the grift, the drift of the tale: A large bull by the name of President Silvio rules a deserted castle with the help of a team of vicious dogs. The plan is that the aristocracy of the encampment will live like kings on the backs of the worker animals. These downtrodden beasts of burden trade their work efforts in return for wood for their stoves and pitiful amounts of food. Their harvests are sold to a human in return for champagne and beautiful ‘value-added’ amuse-bouches. It’s enough to drive the workers barking mad!
Xavier Dorison is a strong writer, capitalizing on the built-in drama of the circumstances to draw obvious parallels between the upper and lower class animal society and our human existence. The dialogue (translation by Ivanka Hahnenberger) is fraught with character, stuffed with rantings and monologues. The conversations and arguments go a long way to convey the animals’ deep frustration against the dogged determination of the bullies in the pulpit.
I love the incredibly fluid representation of the animals by artist Felix Delep. The geese and their expressions, the smooth cat movements, the lovely colouring, and the superb panel composition surpass our usual expectations for ‘talking animal stories.’ This is not a Pixar or Disney cartoon. Animal Castle is an earth-toned Grimmly rendered saga filled with violence. Chock-full of orchestrated cruelty and the roughing up of feathers. Delep takes us into a visual world embued with atmosphere: a candlelit sleeping quarter, a slippery slope, a celebration here, a savage killing there. There is blood on the saddle, and the corral ain’t okay.
Be aware that the story runs long, and the unremitting tension throughout can make a reader sad and reflective. There is no summer break, no trip to the beach for ice cream. What will happen to the mistreated animals in this castle from hell? Will their resistance be futile? It’s a grey area, both visually and mentally, as we track alongside a determined band of animals, sick, tired, and focused on their future.
The dialogue, as intense and involved and multilevel as it is, combining Gandhi-like philosophies with rantings of a military state-led dictatorship, is solid and compelling. However, one note: the size of the dialogue lettering varies (Tom Napolitano letters) based presumably on the amount of space available in the panel. So: loads of room for lettering? Larger font size. Squeezed for space? Smaller font size. This can get distracting to the reader.
It’s five issues of the saga of the animals of the castle. The battle lines have been drawn in the barnyard, the stakes are high, and the pressure is on. Neither side wants to back down, and concessions are few.
I was truly touched by this narrative; by telling us this rather complex story by using animals instead of people, Dorison is able to boil down large ideas and concepts and make us feel for the characters. Maybe because I was reading about bulls and dogs oppressing rabbits and mice, it magnified the dynamics. In any event, the reading experience was more affecting than that of a typical ‘Rocky’ story of the underdog, the downtrodden attempting to rise up.
If you are looking for powerful visuals and a modern-day parable that can be compared to our own existence, check out this trade collection of Animal Castle!