There is something utterly beguiling about a well-told mystery well-sustained with just the right amount of breadcrumb clues along the way.
And beguiling is just the word for the intriguing charms of Folklords, written by Matt Kindt, illustrated by Matt Smith and coloured by Chris O’Halloran, which takes places in a cleverly turned on its head medieval world where monsters and magic are commonplace, gnomes are pressed into hypnotic service and a shadowy group called the Librarians rules the life of the local people with the ruthless, unforgiving efficiency of the Spanish Inquisition.
In this land where every one toes the line with meek compliance because they have no choice to, one young man named Ansel stands out, a man possessed of visions of strange clothes and unknown devices, who can’t help but push the envelope of what is allowed and what is possible.
And crucially, for all dictatorships weaken and fall in the face of knowledge which is why these regimes so rigidly control it, what is known.
For Ansel, who dresses in a business suit in stark contrast to the utilitarian 14th century of the rest of the village, knows things he couldn’t possibly know about – of cities and cars and people in business wear and of a world so advanced and different to his own that it can only be the result of fevered dreams.
Or can it?
That is the decadent mystery that is dangled in front of you through the first five issues of Folklords, gathered together in one very handsome tradepaper, where you are never quite sure if Ansel is the oddity in a world of conformance-adhering villagers or whether they are the odd ones out and perhaps Ansel is the displaced normal one.
Certainly it is suggested in little clues dropped here and there that Ansel might be in a coma or dreaming heavily and this world is his sandman creation, but the fact that it is so sustained and so inherently robust as a coherent, expansive world suggests there is more going on than the simply firings of some neurones under stress.
The big question that fills and consumes the imaginative strictures of Folklords is just how far Ansel is willing to go to find out what is really behind his visions and what they all mean.
Push too little and you might as well not bother at all; push too much, however, and the Librarians will come down so hard and with such unflinching cruelty that asking the question won’t matter to much anyway.
The perfect opportunity presents itself when Ansel reaches the age of 18 and has to declare his Quest, a rite of passage which practically begs a young inquisitive person to come with a task which will take him or her far from the bounds of the village and into a world where monsters must be battled, golden bowls of foresight must be acquired and sleeping dragons of Gador must be found.
It’s all very noble and adventurous but also very safe; the one thing you cannot do is say you are going to find and meet and talk to the Folklords which is a task punishable by death.
But Ansel, driven by a need to explain his vision of wrist watches and cigarette lighters, radios and lace-up leather shoes, has no choice – he is compelled to say that his Quest will be to find the Folklords or he will die trying (quite literally, of course, in an oppressed world where this is no idle figure of speech).
Events conspire to rob him of his moment but he gets his grand adventure, one enlivened by some inspired re-fashioning of well-known stories such as Hansel and Gretal, some sidebar commentary which is playfully insightful and gorgeous artwork which brings Ansel’s world alive with vivacity of hope and prevailing danger.
Kindt, Smith and O’Halloran has truly given us a mystery for the ages.
Again, quite literally with Ansel having a foot in the medieval and the modern and no explanation for why he alone (or is he alone? Ta-dah! More mystery awaits as the story winds its way intriguingly on) straddles two manifestly different worlds.
A great deal of the charm of Folklords, quite apart from its cheeky willingness to play with genre and tone with gleeful alacrity, is Ansel himself, a young man who is both naive and knowing, who is afraid of what might lie down but not enough to stop himself going down the road he knows he has no choice but to travel.
He has a lot on the line – not simply attracting the opprobrium and censure of the Librarians but losing loving parents, a supportive girlfriend (maybe) who is more than capable of looking herself, a diffident new friend and a new powerful ally who is not as enamoured of the Librarians as you might expect someone of his station to be.
There’s a great deal of very clever storytelling going on along with a delicious mix of introspection and action and a lingering mystery which is explained just enough to keep you hooked but not enough to ruin the vexing fun.
Folklords is an inspired, artfully exquisite joy that speaks of the freedom to know and to inquire, to push boundaries and gain knowledge and to feel secure in truly belonging even if it might, as Ansel knows all too well, cost you everything you are and have.