Avalon by Josh Phillips, reviewed by Apis Teicher
In Arthurian legend, Avalon was the enchanted island were King Arthur was taken when mortally wounded after his last battle – a place to heal his wounds in the hands of faerie beings, and eventually return. Josh Phillips's Avalon is a fitting tribute to the name. When describing Avalon, Phillips tells the reader: "This is the story of the students of Avalon High School. It is an exploration of emotion, relationships, and the experiences of youth." One would think this a rather ambitious statement about any work of art or fiction, until Phillips' work is actually examined. Longevity is definitely to be commended: the strip has been around since 1999, and despite an extended hiatus, Avalon seems to be in the process of updating again. However, its staying power is more likely due to his honest storytelling as opposed to regular updates.
The story itself starts off in a fairly standard fashion for many modern yarns and innumerable coming-of-age tales or anime series: we are introduced to Ceilidh, the new student at Avalon High. While Ceilidh is the character most easy to empathize with, the entire cast of characters quickly evolves from somewhat predictable if endearing caricatures, into fully fleshed creations in a matter of months. Particularly noteworthy is that Phillips' characters are utterly believable… from their reactions, their expressions and body language to the emotional upheavals they undergo. These are people we have known, and can relate to.
The dialogue is well written, and after some false starts in the very beginning, both male and female characters seem oddly realistic and poignantly depicted. The tale turns into an exploration of something primarily universal… the awkwardness of coming of age, of coming to terms with one's own emotions and the complexities of relationships. Avalon doesn't limit itself to following the life of the main characters within school grounds, either; it follows them, their families, and their teachers into the world at large. The wonder of Phillips' storytelling is that he incorporates an entire microcosm, the community that surrounds the protagonists at homes, the streets, hangouts and their country at large, almost seamlessly.
Something that also makes it particularly believable is the inclusion of Canadiana – from the Barq's and Joe Canadian comics to subtle inclusions of well-loved icons such as Geddy Lee, Tim Horton's, Great Big Sea, Moxy Fruvous and the ever-present hockey. Although these retain the flavor of a private joke for a more limited audience, it doesn’t detract from the strip’s universal appeal. It is more of an extra flavoring, adding something of a more exotic ingredient to the mix.
Although admittedly based on anime influences, the art in Avalon is something of an acquired taste. It seems to remain pretty much consistent through the entire run up to this point, the style not truly shifting over the years. There are improvements of course, mostly in the use of varied backgrounds, exploration of more camera angles and storytelling techniques well adapted to sequential art. It is not, however, Avalon's forte. Phillip's use of facial expression is adequate. It fits the story without detracting from the plot and dialogue with overly stunning detailed work or pinups. It is not eye candy. The simplicity of the art reinforces the backseat that it takes to the plot, demanding that attention be paid to the story rather than the visual aspects of the tale.
Something noteworthy is the interaction of Phillips with his readers, many of whom call one another 'Lynchers,' for reasons discovered after hanging around in the community forums. This interactivity is perhaps most noticeable through the Guest Artist Sundays, where he encourages readers to submit alternative realities of the characters and world, and it has further grown to include spirited IRC discussions on various topics. Such fan loyalty as Avalon continues to maintain – despite hiatus and updating hiccups – is a testament to the quality of the strip itself.
Ultimately, it is well worth the effort to read through the archives, and see the evolution of Phillips’ work as well as the building of Avalon’s microcosm. Avalon lives up not only to its author’s vision in representing the struggle and complexity of teenage emotions, relationships and the reality that surrounds them, but to its mythical title as well. The tale leaves one yearning for more, hoping for what future developments may come – hopefully, unlike king Arthur’s tale to date, this Avalon’s promise will be seen through its conclusion to the delight of its fans.
Apis Teicher is a contributor-at-large for the Comixpedia. You can find her own work here.