At the library where I work, I often come across books I liked as a kid. They're usually plain and simple children's books, appealing only to nostalgia or to the "cute ganglia" that zig-zag through my brain, and I'll leaf through them with a smile before putting 'em back on the cart to be shelved.
But sometimes I'll find one that has more going on than I noticed when I first read it: Margery Sharp's "Miss Bianca" series, for instance, George Selden's later books, or even some of L. Frank Baum's earlier Oz books. And of course the more recent successes of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman have hinged on their books being interesting not only to pre-teen readers but to their older siblings and their parents as well.
That's what "all-ages" means to me: a story in which anyone who enjoys a little action, a little thought, and a little character interplay will find something to like, and where that enjoyment will only deepen as the reader gets older. They're the kind of stories I'm on the lookout for — the kind of stories I usually try to write, too — and of the webcomics I've found that qualify under that heading, one of my favorites is Tales of the Questor by Ralph Hayes, Jr.
Hayes began the comic back in November of 2001 — though he did away with all the dates when he moved from ComicGenesis to his new site a couple months ago, and I suppose picayune details like that really only matter to those of us interested in the whole archival aspect of this stuff. What does matter here, though, is that Hayes started this comic more than a year after his first two, Nip and Tuck and Under the Lemon Tree (now known as Goblin Hollow), and it seems to me that he applied some lessons he learned from those strips to this one, lessons mostly about the best way to get his message out.
Because Hayes — unlike a lot of us webcartoonists — definitely has a message, one that's very Christian and very conservative, and reading his comics, well, I sometimes feel the Truncheon of Truth bearing down upon me. It's a sensation I get when reading a work of fiction in which the author abandons the tools of the medium in an attempt to better pound home some point, and it just plain rubs me the wrong way no matter what point the author's trying to make.
I mean, conveying a message in fiction is fine — I've been known to try my hand at it myself every now and again. But I've always subscribed to the school of thought that's so nicely summed up in a line I've seen attributed to people ranging from Oscar Wilde to Billy Wilder, a line I first heard in Tom Lopez's fabulous radio series Moon Over Morocco: "If you insist upon telling the truth, you'd better make it funny, or people will kill you."
Entertainment is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down, and even when an author is presenting a point of view that I don't necessarily agree with, if it's done in context and in character, gently and with some skill, I'm less likely to start wondering about sources and checking for footnotes. Maybe I'm just quaint for thinking it, but a story shouldn't be a manifesto. It should be a world, a world I want to enter and experience, and nothing'll kick me out of it faster than that sort of ham-fisted authorial intrusion.
Fortunately for me, Hayes has made exactly the right sort of world in TOTQ, and when he's focusing on his story — the whole "coming of age" thing with our hero Quentyn looking back on his life and adventures and commenting on them as we follow along — it's fantasy fiction of the highest caliber. To be sure, his point of view shows through, but it never overwhelms the story even in those times when that POV is front and center.
For instance, magic may or may not exist in TOTQ — the comic leaves me with a few questions about that — but either way, magic's always referred to as false, superstitious, and bad whenever the subject comes up. This puts it in opposition to the force Hayes calls "lux," a natural phenomenon akin to gravity or electromagnetism which some people can manipulate and some people can't. Mistaking lux for magic has led to problems in the past and is in fact the main reason Quentyn's people, the raccoon-like Rac Cona Daihm, have separated themselves from the other peoples of the world: most Rac Cona use lux almost by reflex, so they've been mistrusted and sometimes burnt at the stake as "witchrats" by folks who thought they were using magic.
Magic, then, is an evil force to be disparaged and avoided while lux-craft is taught scientifically, is value-neutral, and provides many of the same effects that magic does in any other fantasy setting. It's a dichotomy that I see having its roots in Hayes' Christian beliefs — not suffering a witch to live, or however you wanna translate that verse — but having established that dichotomy, he then thinks it through: the lux-based sciences and technologies, how lux would effect a society that's awash in it, even the ways unscrupulous raccoon folks might find to use lux against outsiders and their own people.
But that's all just background, the stuff an addle-patted fogey like me can think about after reading the story itself. At its core, Tales of the Questor is good, thoughtful, all-ages, character-based fantasy adventure, and I would call Hayes's eye for color in his artwork second to none. The beginning's really the only place to start with this one, but don't let the first couple pages fool you — I got four pages in the first time I went to read the strip, decided it wasn't for me, and went on about my life. The next time I tried the strip, though, I went five pages in, discovered that the opening scene is from one of the cheesy novels Quentyn likes to read, and I've been hooked on the comic ever since.
This would make a good "gateway comic," actually, something to point at should a friend or relative want to know what all this webcomic stuff is about–especially if that friend or relative is already into Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. A timeless tale well-told