by Chao Peng and Weidong Chen
published by Yen Press; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
A You is 19 years old and dissatisfied with the general direction of his life. He believes that he has no skills, no luck, and no hope of things getting better. His friends and family try to cheer him up, but he finds no consolation in their words. A You quits his job, then heads out to the country for a day trip to clear his head. During a rainstorm, he takes shelter in a large hollow tree and falls asleep. When A You wakes up, he finds that the tree opens up into a different world. A small green man (reminiscent of Yoda) tells A You that he can return to his own world when he has found the answers to his problems.
An Ideal World is a coming-of-age story with a moral lesson for both A You and the reader. We are told that being an adult means taking charge of your life and yourself. Furthermore, we are told that happiness comes from finding out what truly brings you joy and pursuing that regardless of your circumstances. For example, if dancing is your passion, you can pursue it even if you’re a janitor. You simply turn cleaning into a form of dance. So you have no one to blame but yourself for the way your life has turned out. I don’t disagree with the basic philosophy behind An Ideal World, I just wish the authors were more subtle in conveying that message.
The first third of the book is the toughest to get through. A You is depressed about his current circumstances. The authors are trying hard to connect with a younger generation they feel has fallen into despair about their lives. However, it’s hard to take A You’s ennui seriously. He lives with his parents, and he has caring friends and a very forgiving boss. We’re told that in this month alone, he has taken eight days off, worked eleven half days, and shown up late sixteen times. How does he still have a job?! So when A You thinks, “Anyone who could understand my silent suffering would bring a shining torch into the depths of darkness I was wandering through,” my initial reaction was that the authors were being ironic, but that mood didn’t fit with the story up to this point. So I literally had to stop and convince myself they were being sincere. The disconnect between the reality of A You’s life and his negative perceptions was just too much to take so matter-of-factly.
The story’s pace and readability improve once you get past A You’s dark night of the soul. Part of the appeal of the rest of the book is that you get to meet a host of fascinating characters set in an amazing fantasy world. The moralizing can still be heavy at times, but thankfully, there is more emphasis on the storytelling, so it’s easier to overlook this flaw. A You’s mood also brightens as he gets caught up in the wonder of this new world and its possibilities. He becomes likable and slightly sympathetic in this new setting. It feels like the authors are writing more naturally instead of pedagogically, and the story benefits significantly from that change.
This is a full-color book, and the art is gorgeous. Peng and Chen are terrific at character design and world building. The book opens in a crowded and overdeveloped city; the drawings make you feel claustrophobic as A You walks the streets. By contrast, the city of the fantasy world is spacious with lots of green areas and low buildings that allow plenty of open sky. (In fact, the fantasy city reminded me of the city in Kiki’s Delivery Service.) I enjoy good fantasy art, and there’s lots of eye candy for me to feast on. In fact, I bought this book because it had an eye-catching cover and I was impressed with the art when I flipped through the book.
An Ideal World is a book with a lot of wasted potential. Peng and Chen have good storytelling instincts; unfortunately, they ignored them in favor of creating a book with a message. Honestly, you could ignore the first third of this book, and it would be a much more satisfying read. If Peng and Chen ever write a pure fantasy story, I’d love to read it, since that’s where their talents truly lie. As Tolkien and Lewis have taught us, you can craft great fantasy stories that also subtly convey powerful and relevant messages. If Pen and Chen took lessons from these two master storytellers, they might create truly amazing comics. Until they do, we have only this flawed attempt.