Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened once a month to champion a book that we adore and you should read. The latest: Little Monarchs, available now from Margaret Ferguson Books, an imprint of Holiday House Publishing.
by Arpad Okay. Faint pink and purple milkweed petals are shaped like a starburst, a delicate visual reminder that blossom and explosion are different words for one idea. Elvie lifts a broad, green leaf to reveal hanging chrysalis, a bulbous teardrop clear as glass with the slumbering fire of a monarch butterfly inside. A mindful harvest can produce enough medicine to survive sun sickness and continue with their research until the next migration season without compromising the overall butterfly population—if Flora (adult, scientist) and Elvie (our young protagonist) can get back to the grove again, that is. Every move made is a measured risk in Jonathan Case’s climate fiction comic Little Monarchs.
Yes, it is survival sci-fi and near future dystopia, but what if I told you that it was a work of internal power and perseverance rather than a warning against economic collapse? Little Monarchs isn’t about losing the world we’ve created, it is about us, and what happens to the world we are a part of.
Elvie has a favorite song, can tie a water bowline knot, has performed Shakespeare on stage, though with trees growing through the abandoned theater walls like something out of The Last of Us. She keeps a journal, regularly updated maps, and pigeons. Our world is in her past but she still has a full life, one that we could recognize. Elvie is alive.
So when I say survival sci-fi what I mean is cultural preservation. There are monstrous survivors of the ongoing climate apocalypse as well as the book’s central pair of intrepid butterfly chasers. The unfiltered rays of sun can kill you in a few hours, only those who went underground lived through the collapse. After sunset is the only time of day that won’t kill you, but the struggle for resources with all the other deepers just might. That’s life for everyone but Elvie and Flora, who make sun sickness medicine from the milkweed monarchs, travel by day and hide at night. Little Monarchs is set in the abandoned ruins of time, empty highways that lead to empty towns, a day in the life of a city without any people to make it live. Case argues humanity doesn’t survive without art and science and philosophy (and I agree with him). So you have this adventure comic where people are trying to save something bigger than themselves.
The sensitivity and mirth and livelihood of his characters comes out through Case’s sublime linework as much as in what they do for each other. His is a halfway point between the watercolor delicacy of Jill Thompson and the bold contour confidence of Chris Samnee. Case’s strength is anchored in traditional draftsmanship, the confidence to lay a draft line loose and tighten it with the ink, like classic Archie or Fleischer Superman. The characters have flexibility and permanence, they snap.
The world they occupy, cluttered with science gadgets and couched in natural overgrowth, is depicted with equal attention and purpose. The art is a well-tended garden and it bears high stakes drama as clearly as it does cartoony characters. Drawing black bead eyes to observe an Audubon Society world, Jonathan Case is today’s Roy Crane. If only adventure had stayed something anyone in comics could have instead of all the heroes becoming super! Little Monarchs evokes the proto-comics of the 30s broadsheet, leaping over a tall building in a single bound rather than flying through the clouds beyond the world’s reach, its roots in humanity feeding the quality of Case’s fantasy.
Which is to say, heroes are made from knowing scout stuff. The art of survival is practicing a lot of craft skills. Little Monarchs is a naturalist comic, from the content of Elvie’s journal to the things she undergoes, taking the kayak through choppy water to get supplies or smearing mud on her skin to avoid sunstroke (while making a daytime desert escape on foot). There’s beauty as well as thrills in naturalist accounts, solemnity in observing nature and feeling like you’re one with the world around you. What precious stone or minted coin could shine with the intensity of the sun dancing on water? Beyond capturing beauty, Case nails integrating the other thing that makes naturalist pursuits so much fun into his Little Monarchs: it is overflowing with science homework.
Case is operating at maximum cartoonist. Insert an actual diary into the page, draw comics in it, in the comic. Cut out panels of plot progression for infographic inserts. How to tie a knot or start a fire, we experience the characters’ ideas with them. Little Monarchs dreams up all the things a book is capable of being and doing and tries them. A graphic novel with more to it than being a comic book. Also some of the best lettering this side of the Pacific: the sound of Elvie running unseen inside a turret forms a circular staircase of letters; a mammoth wave wall that blocks out the horizon as it breaks against the shore has a crashing sound crowning it that covers what little of the page is left.
Little Monarchs is a towering achievement of comics craft, standing with giant sequoias. I’m sure naturalists (and Californians) would find that statement appalling as that is not even close to the part of California in which Little Monarchs is set. They’re getting lost in the Nevada desert and I’m talking about the Pacific Southwest. At least there are plenty of maps.
Make no mistake, he might woo you with the gentle wonder of the natural world, but Case is an absolute sadist when it comes to telling his story. Little Monarchs knows when it has made you vulnerable and uses the opportunity to hit you while you are off balance. Hard. Often. I was a wreck by the time I got to the end of the book, and then the end of the book! It’s been a rough couple years and I’m not used to taking cautionary glances towards the future and feeling a strong surge of hope. There’s conflict, obstacles, pessimism, but the power of perseverance that drives Elvie and Flora through Little Monarchs comes through, blazing, again and again. Dawn extinguishes the darkness, if you can just hold on.
Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House Publishing/$14.99
Written and illustrated by Jonothan Case.
Little Monarchs is available now. For purchasing information, click this.
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