Sparks: An Urban Fairytale

The princess of this urban fairytale is a tomboy mechanic, living in a tenement. She does her best to look out for her mother, reduced to a shadow of a human, and avoid her bullying, overbearing father, who wants her to “get a chest” so she can catch a husband. After yet another disastrous attempt at socializing, Jo builds a dream man, even though she knows she’s just pretending. Strangely, though, during a thunderstorm, her “man” of auto parts and metal junk comes to life.

She finds him a hiding place and begins teaching him to read and communicate, which also involves trying to explain her life to him. He encounters the neighbor boy, who names him Galahad while playing King Arthur in an abandoned lot. After Jo’s co-worker prevails upon his girlfriend to include her, Jo takes part in a girls’ night out that doesn’t go so well. To cheer her up, Galahad takes her to the museum after hours to explore what beauty means in one of the standout sequences in this book.

Jo begins dating and dealing with the issue of surface appearance vs. authenticity. When three girls invite Jo out to a fraternity party, Jo demonstrates several levels of smarts — not only does she ace the college boy’s midterm exam for him, but she knows better than to go upstairs — only to find herself alone, as the others are more interested in drinking and hooking up. Ultimately, though, she’s the one that sticks to her guns and rescues Janet, who’s been nothing but mean to her, from an unpleasant situation.

Sparks: An Urban Fairytale cover
An Urban Fairytale
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Afterwards, we learn more about Jo’s background and how she wound up working as a mechanic in a neighborhood with strict views on how girls should act. These views, by the way, are demonstrated to be clearly incomplete. Janet’s doing what she’s supposed to, looking pretty, flirting, but its Jo’s ability to function outside the rules that end up protecting them both.

Everyone seems to know what they want except for Jo, and they have no problem getting it in the most direct way possible, regardless of who gets in their way. Often, she bears the brunt of their desires. She’s an interesting blend of the practical — working as a mechanic, using her skills to fix people’s problems — and the romantic — dreaming of a better life and the perfect man to share it with. The problem is that her hopes keep her going, but they also let her put off making a real change. She’s working on a car that will take her out of town to put off thinking about what she’ll do when she leaves.

As Jo grows up, she starts feeling comfortable enough with herself to start talking about the problems she sees, but she also has to grow past putting other people’s lives down to start making her own better. It’s easy to say “I hate fakeness” and all the other problems of society, but without solutions, without concentrating on what you do believe in, just putting stuff down is juvenile. It doesn’t solve problems or accomplish anything.

Instead of her dream man, her robot creation is more like her child, and the experience of caring for him helps her grow up. She realizes change has to come from within herself, that while a new hairstyle or dress or boyfriend might be nice, they don’t solve the real problems. As Jo grows up, so does the story, moving from ideals of romantic love to dealing with sex and violence. The concluding sequence reminded me of Thelma & Louise. It’s a change in tone, but it demonstrates the need to take action. Dreams don’t come true without a lot of work and perhaps a lot of detours and pain along the way.

Marvit’s animation background is evident in his simplicity and confidence with his line. The character designs are elegant in their economy of detail — there’s just enough to capture the essentials. Jo, especially, has an emotional fragility in her face, shadowed under a work cap with a ponytail behind. Although the character types are familiar, they transcend cliche to become symbolic. The little boy next door in second grade is already bored with what school tries to limit him to. He’s a kindred spirit, in that he’s also more than he’s supposed to be.

The setting, like the characters, is timeless — although it’s present-day, it could as easily be fifty years ago — and cinematic. The cityscape spreads provide a remote beauty and a certain nobility that makes the fairytale analogue more plausible. Galahad’s spider-like means of travel on extension arms, swinging through the city at night, provides an excuse for some lovely glimpses with a different perspective on the everyday.

Additionally, wordless storytelling skills are very beneficial if you’re going to have one of your two main characters not able to speak at first. I also appreciated seeing touches of humor, both verbal and visual, to lighten the occasionally overwhelming despair. The funny lines are well-done, placed just when things become too disturbing.

The characters are established through well-chosen details. In just a few sentences, for example, Marvit captures the core of the frat party denizens, from the tie-wearing boy talking about owning his father’s company to the well-meaning but simple guy offering Jo a drink. Some of the scenes are classic, as when the two women talk to each other about how they admire each other and sometimes wish to trade places, but the dialogue is fresh and revealing. The art strongly captures the mood without getting in the way of the emotion on the page.

Underlying the story are a series of contradictions. Fairytales aren’t urban. Parents aren’t supposed to be nightmares. Most importantly, Jo seems fundamentally happy with who she is — she doesn’t really want to be someone different, as her parents push her to be — but she’d still like to fit in with other girls.

That’s a very tough choice, especially when an adolescent girl is different, because the conflicting emotional drives are strong. How should she balance being true to herself with wanting to be accepted? The diary entries scattered through the issues make things worse for the reader. Her emotions are clear enough from context, but to see them expressed basic and raw… her dreams contrast too roughly with her life, especially since it’s obvious that she knows how bad things are.

Her casual words, “It would be nice not to be me,” are chilling, even though most teenage girls have to fight through that feeling as part of coming to terms with their place in a biased society. Jo knows better — “I want to be like regular normal girls. I know it’s stupid but I want it all the same” — yet she’d still like to fit in in an impossible situation.

Worst of all, she can’t leave because she has to protect her mother from her abusive father. He attacks Jo for being a whore when she leaves the house late because that’s all he can see women as good for — sex. Unfortunately, this poisons his view of his daughter, who’s really going to work on a car she’s fixing up. Earlier, her first kiss was followed by her dad threatening the boy and breaking his arm. All she’s been taught puts her into a category (that of girlfriend, later wife) she knows she’s outgrown already, and her experiences with romance have all been negative. Is it really romance she wants, or escape? Is that the only thing she’s allowed to dream about?

Throughout the book, Jo is unsure about a lot of things, including what she wants to be, but when necessary, she’s got steel underneath. There are certain things she can’t help but be true to. Like her knight, she values honesty, loyalty, and learning. Also, when she makes up her mind, she’s got quite an attitude. She’s begun to understand that she’s the only one who will look out for her (she hasn’t fully come to terms with Galahad, her inadvertent creation), and she takes that lesson to heart, pushing ahead to get what she wants.

Overall, this series covers a wide range of emotion, all of it well-portrayed. With this excellent work, Marvit demonstrates a fabulous grasp of character, creating in Jo one of the most inspiring women in comics today. I truly love this comic, but it hurts. It makes me think too much about what women have to go through just to be who we are. I’m not sure I completely believe the happy ending Jo gets, but I love her enough to hope it’s true.

Lawrence Marvit was nominated for a 2000 Eisner Award as a Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. He contributed painted illustrations for a brief section in the Jingle Belle: Naughty & Nice collection. He also worked with Mike Allred on Spaceman, a science fiction comic from Oni Press. Allred wrote the story and drew the lead character, while Marvit painted art for the background and alien characters.

4 Responses to “Sparks: An Urban Fairytale”

  1. Michael Denton Says:

    It is a fantastic piece of work that I read a few years ago; your review makes me want to pull it down from the shelf and re-read it. It is tough to read at points, but it all feels _very_ real and you care so much for Jo.

    Being a fairy tale, the heroine has to live “happily ever after” although as you say, in contradiction, the happy ending isn’t absolutely what it says it is -Jo is now self-reliant, but doesn’t have it all like in most fairy tales – and there’s no handsome prince here – appropriately for this story – the rescue comes from Jo herself.

    I think having the robot named Galahad sets us up, though, for Jo to have a happy ending. Galahad quests fruitlessly for the Grail, and here Jo is the Grail (which is lost to Galahad ultimately) and is also given the metaphorical “Grail” of her life (physcially and emotionally) through Galahad’s life and sacrifice.

  2. Lyle Says:

    Y’know, this title has been one of those that I’ve procrastinating on purchasing for a while…. I think you’ve just motivated me to break that cycle if I find a copy at APE next month.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Michael, this is a reposting of a review I did a while back at the old site, so it gave me the same impulse. I think I need to reread the whole thing as well. :)

    Lyle, I hope you like it!

  4. forsaykenn Says:

    I think you noval was awesome i read it in my class just to read something but i really got in to it and i finish it in two shool book really talks about life and how it really is…




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