Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, where each week one of our contributors goes crazy over a book they just can’t seem to get enough of. Intrigued to find something new? Seeking validation for your secret passions? Required Reading gets you.

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By Molly Jane KremerThere are countless tomes that enable us to briefly flee the trappings of our real life for a different, fantastical world—the Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan, Coraline, Alice in Wonderland, just to name a few—and Gene Ha’s newest work, Mae, falls unerringly into this genre. The mundane travails of a normal life fade away as we watch the heroine or hero transport to a world of wondrous action and adventure.

Mae is most akin to Frank Baum’s Oz series, an American sibling of those aforementioned British-born tales. There’s a grounded earthiness here. A tangibly Midwestern quality permeates its pages.

Gene Ha is a well-established, talented-as-heck comic artist with numerous Eisner awards on his mantle, awarded for collaborations with the likes of Alan Moore and Brad Meltzer (all for more, well… adult fare than Mae). He’s worked with some of the (other) biggest writers in the comics industry: Grant Morrison, James Robinson, Geoff Johns, and Warren Ellis just to name a few, in a career that’s spanned decades. Mae is his first creator-owned release, funded via Kickstarter, beholden to none and entirely his own (with some stellar coloring assists from Rose McClain and Art Lyon). And it just so happens to be a (mostly) all-ages fantasy-adventure comic with smart, strong female protagonists.

It might seem like Mae is an unexpected direction for Ha to gallivant towards, but it’s plain to see that a massive, epic plan is set for this series. Ha knows his audience—all of us nerds to the core, and all of us proud—and gleefully tosses in swift references to Doctor Who and World of Warcraft amid Mae‘s monsters and axe-wielding women. His clear and obvious sense of storytelling, always visually apparent, now reveals itself in witty dialogue and a well-paced plot.  

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Ha’s art has always had a startling—sometimes even unsettling—amount of realism, but in Mae he’s added a whole new dimension to his work. There’s a Pixar-esque depth to the pages, and his faces have never been as expressive and animated. The character and costume design is incredibly varied, especially when you consider the protagonists haven’t even left our world yet; the craziness is brought into our world first to lure our eponymous heroine to the other side. Ha has also built an amazingly complex relationship between Mae and her estranged sister Abbie, and a sweet and supportive friendship between Mae and her bff Dahlia. In an industry where female relationships are often glossed over—if included at all—Mae is as refreshing as it is entertaining, with page after page of repeatedly passing the Bechdel Test with flying colors.

The Kickstarter edition of the book also includes some invaluable process notes from the writer/artist himself, with additional materials including numerous sketches and thoughts on the book’s decade-long origins (not to mention a couple of tiny jokes peeking out from the margins). Every page makes crystal clear Ha’s devotion to this story he’s built, and the dedication he has to see it through. The only complaint one could find in Mae is that the first volume simply ends too soon; but it will soon see a second life at Dark Horse Comics in sequential comic issues, and as a continuing series after that. Though Mae herself is probably thinking something along the lines of “there’s no place like home”, I can’t wait to read about all the quests and voyages she and her sister have yet to take.

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