Mystic: The Tenth Apprentice
I often deride stories that are divided down the middle, those attempting too much or too many differing things, (see yesterday’s review of Hugo for one such example) but Marvel’s new teen series Mystic is one instance where that such duality works wonderfully, one where it works almost too well. Like Hugo Mystic is a mini-series that is made for children, or young teens, but moves in part past the limitations of that medium and onto something more. Unlike Hugo however, it succeeds in the transition, though only slightly. The depth and wit held within the writing of the premise promise much to the mature audience, more than the book can ultimately deliver, but being able to build such expectations in me at all is surely a feat of some kind given the nature of the story.
And what a tale it is too. Anyone familiar with old-fashioned fantasy such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Willow will without a doubt find this all a little familiar, but Mystic tells a story or orphans, occult colleges and evil old ladies the likes of which we haven’t seen in many a year. The simplicity and innocence of it all are utterly refreshing; masking the musk of derivation and contrivance that one would normally associate with an assemblage of cliché, trope and stereotype on this scale. So sure you’ve heard this story before, but you liked it last time so why not settle in and hear it again?
That is an easy question to answer, but here is a harder one: When it is such an oft-sung verse, why favour this one version? Funnily enough that is a question that I’ve started to hear more and more of since film first entered this current age of re-makes (Mystic itself is in fact a re-make of an old Marvel series, though the two share little in similar short of the odd name) and my answer to it is usually just “because it’s good?”, but here I have more to say in the books defence. Though the story itself is the same the way it is told and who it is being told around have changed and these actually make all the difference. For one Mystic is a semi-modern take on the fantasy and secondly it is a totally feminized one.
When reading Mystic we aren’t following the guard in training, the rightful heir to the throne or the bespectacled young boy-who-lived, in fact we aren’t following a boy at all. Instead we are promptly introduced to two antithetical but authentic female protagonists: Genevieve and Giselle. This is not new of course, there are plenty of female leads in fantasy however they are still the minority, as are female readers; that both of these statements are true is a true shame (See of course the furore surrounding a certain critics sexist diss of Game of Thrones late last year if you need proof that this debate still rages).
Genevieve and Giselle are an original odd-couple, polar-opposites but perfectly friends. ‘Viv is your traditional fairy-tale female: she is naive, idealistic and old-fashioned in her utterances and attire, both looking and speaking like a proper lady despite the poverty in which she lives; hell she even looks a little like Annie. Giselle on the other hand is a much more modern heroine: her parlance is much less particular and her clothes practical but entirely improper; She cares deeply for Viv but she is also independent, she knows what she needs to do to survive and does it, deeply cynical of anything that may stand in her way.
The first two issues of the mini-series starts strongly by comparing the pair and then pitting them up against one another and the style of the story itself stems from the clashing together their two respective attitudes. Not every cliché can come true and for each trope that Mystic ticks off it subverts another entirely and just as the book eventually favours its focus on Giselle so too does the story eventually favour breaking the genres rules. Though they are introduced to us as a “dear” and a “devil” these roles are quickly reversed thanks to the dramatic events that take place in the world around them; the “dear” is forced to get down and dirty as the world’s lower class rebel whilst the “devil” gets all dressed up to attend a privileged private education in the paranormal “Noble Arts”, the pair of them maybe saving the world in the process. Though both of these stories seem so very familiar on the surface the way that they are written separates them from all the similar fare.
What most distinguishes the story of Mystic from those other examples of feminized fantasy though is the fact that writer G. Willow Wilson has not simply taken an existing set of characters and given them breasts and better hair, inserting women into an established masculine narrative, he has in fact crafted the content to match their appearance. The events that shape the story are characters dealing with fancy-dresses rather than dragons, the architecture of gossip rather than the Gothics and the magic of the make-over over all else; when the dinner Ball comes it is the highlight and not the slog before the super-awesome finale. Now some may argue that this itself is sexist, but as far as I’m concerned stereotypes only exist when they are true; the majority of girls simply are more interested in these things than their alternatives even if some are not.
So there is then a lot to like in the idea of Mystic, however just as it is the details that make the difference between old and new iterations of these stories, they also cleave the line through good and bad and unfortunately this is not such a clear cut case. The first two issues make for a wonderful introduction but then the story splits and becomes something else entirely. It loses most of the intimate details that I loved in lieu of lore and larger scale action, rushing too quickly towards closure in what is only an introductory arc. This though is a book designed for the younger audience, a people perhaps without the patience to read a story that is stretched out over volume after volume. So while it starts strong, by the end of the book I was feeling somewhat disappointed.
In this case though I and the other oldies are the ones at fault, for we are clearly not the more important half of the audience. Mystic’s boldest move is that it makes its choice, paring down every pair it sets up and siding with its original target audience instead of attempting to appease everyone and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, in fact it should probably be applauded. So while this book may not be the best that I have ever read, in this genre or otherwise, it is still a very good iteration and I would recommend the purchase, only not for yourself. Give it to a girl instead, be they a sister, daughter, lover, school friend or stranger; for they are sure to enjoy it, some even to the extent where it may seed or foster some pre-spread love of graphic-art stories and in the long run the larger the base of female comic fans around the better for all the rest of us. If nothing else Mystic proves that panels are as good a medium for fantasy as any other and that women make just as good a wizard, but there is something else, it entertains and thoroughly.