Graphic novel review: Peculiar Woods – The Ancient Underwater City by Andrés J. Colmenares

(courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Losing your sense of place in the world can be a hugely debilitating experience.

Thais applies regardless of whether the replacement for your status quo is good or bad since any change, even if you can adapt quickly to it, leaves you feeling unmoored and uncertain of who and where and often why you are.

Nine-year-old Iggie, the protagonist in Peculiar Woods – The Ancient Underwater City by Andrés J. Colmenares, knows exactly how this feels when he has to leave the only home he’s ever known to move to the titular town where anything familiarity is unsettlingly absent.

Almost immediately on his arrival, his sense of dislocation becomes even more pronounced when he gets lost in the nearby woods and inanimate objects like a kindly giant rock start speaking to him, something he’s understandably never encountered before and which leaves him wondering where on earth he’s ended up.

In no time flat, he teams up with an irascible talking chair named Boris who aspires to yoga teaching greatness, a sentient blanket who has a lot to learn about being alive and two chess pieces with some fairly fancy ideas of their station in their life (made all the more humourous by the fact that they are very tiny and not really in a place to be making any kinds of demands).

To Iggie’s great credit, he bonds with these unorthodox and strange companions almost immediately, possibly because he’s been forbidden to talk to strangers – kinda kills the whole friend-making vibe, right? – and because the kids at his new school have decided he’s ripe for some near-instant bullying.

Together they set off on a grand and forbidden adventure to the old sunken township of Peculiar Woods which is full of mystery and all kinds of answers, whether you’re an uppity pair of chess pieces or a nasty criminal washing machine named Lazarus Gallington whose minions are some fiendishly hungry beavers.

It’s all gloriously imaginative and very cleverly and affectingly executed with Colmenares imbuing Peculiar Woods – The Ancient Underwater City with both a whimsical sense of fun but also the weight of danger, emotional uncertainty and grappling with the loss of surety of your place in the world.

(courtesy Simon & Schuster)

The author teams emotionally insightful storytelling with artwork that has a real Gravity Falls meets Adventure Time vibe and look to it, resulting in a story that pops off the page both visually and narratively.

Clearly targeted at a younger demo, Peculiar Woods – The Ancient Underwater City goes hard on the adventure and menace but only in so far as it serves the age to which he’s writing so while there are real stakes and danger at play, Iggie and his friends do manage to find a way out.

What really underpins this wildly original and warmly thoughtful story is how Colmenares goes to great trouble to create characters who emotionally resonate, most especially Iggie who’s a delight, and to place them in situations where their true strength of character shines through.

Iggie and his strange new friends bond because they need each other and while adventure is the thing all the way through and there are scares and near misses and close calls, what really cuts through is how each of them are there for each other and how this makes Iggie’s transition to his odd new home feel a lot less traumatic than it might otherwise have been.

The theme, again and again is the power of belonging and unconditional friendship, something which emerges not just on the trip to the flooded town itself but at home where Iggie has to adapt to a living situation which would test the resolve and adaptability of any nine-year-old.

That Iggie comes through all this change with a sense of self and place restored is testament to the fact that his friends are there for him, and he for them and Colmenares does a beautifully moving and often fun job of demonstrating how who we know and how they treat us goes to a long way, even in extraordinary circumstances, to how safe and secure we feel in a particular place.

Peculiar Woods – The Ancient Underwater City is a joy and a delight no matter your age, reminding us with vividly playful and colourful artwork and vivaciously fun and emotionally meaningful storytelling that we need people (and sentient things as it turns out) and we need to feel okay in our small patch of the world for life to mean something and for us to move forward into what exciting and life-changing adventures lie in our future.

While Peculiar Woods – The Ancient Underwater City does end definitively, it does have a cliffhanger moment which will play out in in book two of the series Peculiar Woods: The Mystery of the Intelligents, out 4 June, 2024.

(courtesy Simon & Schuster)

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