A comic loving guy from Omaha, Nebraska. Also host of Dan Dashly Discusses, the internet's 2,368th most popular youtube comic review show.
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At ComiConverse, we love shining our light on talented news artists and publishers. Here, our Cody Tromler looks at Towerkind by Canadian author Kat Verhoeven.
Towerkind from Conundrum Press is the first published comic from the Toronto based webcomic creator Kat Verhoeven, who you might recognize from Meat and Bone. We take a look at this odd coming-of-age story from one of the up and coming names from Canada’s comics scene!
Towerkind is the tale of a group of children in one of North America’s most densely populated areas; the St. James neighbourhood of downtown Toronto. Each of these kids is gifted with one extraordinary power or another, each of them must make their own personal realizations and journeys to gain control of their powers to save all of the inhabitants of St. James Town’s many towers. Set against the harsh socioeconomic space of St. James Town, Towerkind paints a picture of heroic children that is different from most comics out there. The combination of social commentary, interesting psychic powers and a coming-of-age tale that would give Fooly Cooly a run for it’s money make Towerkind worthy of a ComiConverse review!
Towerkind opens on a group of children from the titular towers of St. James Town, led by their aggressive leader, Tyson, who has been gifted with super strength. He commands the children to build him a fort until he notices one of the children, Moses, a boy with the ability to understand and speak any language, isn’t paying the necessary homage to Tyson. A chase ensues that ends with Moses being injured. From that point we are treated to the individual stories of our primary group of children.
Dina, a girl with the ability to make paths where there are none, Mackenzie a girl who can communicate with the dead, Maha who sees visions of the future and Duk and Daniel, who have a connection so deep that they can feel what the other one is feeling and share their wounds. Dina is the one you could call the main architect of the group, reaching out to Maha to help interpret her visions and leading Moses to some ancient graffiti that needs to be deciphered. While she pulls those strings, Mackenzie’s dead animal friends are sending her cryptic messages, Tyson tries to reconcile with his knack for pushing people, mainly Maha, away and Duk and Daniel are trying to figure out their own powers and the visions they saw in Maha’s bubbles. Each of the kids learns a bit about their powers and a lot about themselves, from Tyson learning to not be so abrasive to Moses learning his self worth. Their stories all converge together when they combine their powers to craft a plan to bring the kids of St. James Town together to escape the doom that is heading towards their tower community.
Towerkind is a book that can best be described as elegant in its simplicity at some points. What one writer and artist could have turned into a bloated, convoluted mess Verhoeven managed to condense to be exactly as long and detailed as it needed to be. This is one of those classic examples of a comic that benefits from the writer and artist being the same person; especially when it comes to some of the more out-there imagery that Verhoeven lays out.
When you examine the central plot of a book like Towerkind, which is a bunch of kids have super powers and try to save the other kids in their neighborhood, it’s easy to think of ways to pad the book out. Some writers might take pages upon pages explaining the socioeconomic plight of the kids in St. James Town, other may take forever explaining how and why the kids got their powers similar to an X-Men book. Other authors might have taken valuable space in the book explaining what the threat to the towers is or they might spend far too long explaining the rough home life some of the kids are faced with. The beauty of Towerkind and Verhoeven’s writing is that she manages to fit elements of the interesting ideas in while cutting out the useless information.
How the kid’s got their powers isn’t discussed because it isn’t important to the story being told. Things like Tyson’s crush on Maha only come up briefly because while his crush on Maha is one of the catalysts for his change it isn’t the most important element. The threat towards the towers is only shown in bits and pieces in the end, not because it’s a surprise but because time devoted to laying out why something is headed toward them isn’t as important as how the kids we care about are going to stop them. Elements like the kid’s home lives or their socioeconomic situations are shown to us in the background, St James Town’s large Filipino population shows up in the use of Tagalog, their apartments aren’t large and the kids play in decently run down places. Things are shown to be bad without it being beaten into the reader. That leaves all the time in the book for the development of the characters and their own personal struggles and growth.
While cutting out things that are unneeded makes for a book that flows elegantly all of that would be for nothing if Verhoeven didn’t manage to craft characters and a story that is engaging. Writing children, especially kids in or around their teens or pre-teens, can be tricky. You shouldn’t write them as little adults because their thought process simply doesn’t work like that at the same time you shouldn’t write 12-13 year old kids like they are toddlers (I mentioned the Molly Hayes issue in my review of Veda: Assembly Required.) Verhoeven managed to make these kids talk and act like kids you would see in any apartment complex, they fight, they get emotional frequently and they ask each other silly questions sometimes. Now each of the kids, except Duk and Daniel who are basically one character, act differently, so I don’t mean to say that Verhoeven wrote all of them the same. Each kid has their own individual quirks, like Mackenzie and Dina’s almost unshakable positive attitudes, or Tyson’s anger toward everyone but Maha but at the same time she realizes they are just kids. Which can go a long way in getting you emotionally invested in these characters, and if you look hard enough I bet you will see yourself in one of the kids.
No piece of writing is without flaws though and one of the biggest weaknesses of Towerkind simply comes from the development, or lack there of, of some of the characters, something to be expected when you have so many characters in a book that only weighs in at 164 pages. Duk, Daniel and Dina definitely suffer from it most, we know almost nothing about Dina and what her life is like other than she isn’t allowed a cellphone. There is little one can do about that save for adding more book, since I would shudder at the idea of removing development for the other characters. One small nitpick I have is the naming of Moses, who brings all the kids together at the end is a weirdly on the nose thing, probably not on purpose but it stood out to me.
The writing in Towerkind is only one half of the story though and Kat Verhoeven brings her simple yet effective ascetic to the book. While a lack of color and relatively simple design choices might seem like a hindrance in a book with crazy powers and an eventual post apocalyptic situation Kat Verhoeven proves that less is often times more.
Towerkind, as a character driven story, has to make us care about the characters and understand exactly how they are feeling. Naturally the art plays a huge part in that and it is where Verhoeven’s style shines. She focuses heavily on showing us exactly how the characters are feeling at any given time, with enough detail to show it but not so much that we lose focus. A premier example of that is when Tyson asks Maha to ride his bike with him and his crush shines through. You can almost feel his cheeks turning red as you look at Verhoeven’s art. The same can be said of the fear in Mackenzie’s face as her dead friends give her dire messages, or the pain in Moses’ face after Tyson drops a dumpster on his arm. When we want to focus on how these characters are feeling we don’t need heavy detail in the buildings or anything else, we need to focus on how they are feeling and Verhoeven knows exactly how to do that.
The other strength in Towerkind’s art is Verhoeven’s refusal to pull punches when it comes to the weird and disturbing imagery. The book has a lot to say about death and the dead. Moments like Mackenzie talking to a dead animal are all too common and Verhoeven does her best to make the audience understand that the animal is dead. There are also moments like when Maha has a rather frightening vision of herself and the future which Verhoeven did a great job of making as sudden for the audience as it was for Maha. The final and perhaps most unsettling imagery is the combination of dead birds plummeting out of the sky as maggots and beetles squirm their way out of the soil. Very few books have such a goosebumps inducing imagery used to signify their cataclysmic finale.
As a whole Towerkind proves to be an all around great package, with characters we grow invested in and a setting that is truly unique for comics, all combined with art that makes you feel exactly the way Kat Verhoeven wants you to feel. While it was a hidden gem of 2014 it’s a coming of age story that you shouldn’t pass up.
Cody Tromler is a Contributor to ComiConverse: Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_Dashly
A wonderful picture of kids coming of age in one of the harshest socioeconomic climates in all of Toronto. The combination of simplistic yet empathetic art and a story that can resonate with nearly anyone.