Friday, June 5, 2009

Review: Rice Boy

It's been a long time in coming, but here it is: the Rice Boy review. It's a rather daunting task, reviewing a work like this, because Rice Boy is a different strain of webcomic. It tells a complete and self-contained story, to begin with; it's evident that comic creator Evan Dahm put a lot of planning into the storyline, from beginning to end, even as a lot of other webcartoonists are content to dive in and see where their comic takes them. And Rice Boy's story is epic: a full 439 pages.

So what's the story about? A diminutive armless person named Rice Boy, who looks sort of like a Fisher-Price toy. A machine man, known as "The One Electronic" or "T-O-E," informs Rice Boy that he is a possible "fulfiller" of an ancient prophecy. Despite his doubts, Rice Boy decides to set off and "give the prophecy a shot," so to speak. As T-O-E finds himself enlisting the help of his brethren the machine men, and Rice Boy journeys through such trying realms as Lonely Land and Underside, they encounter various adversaries. In pursuit are the hard-drinking, one-eyed mercenary Golgo (who has some past ties to T-O-E), and the ruthless King Spatch II, leader of a nation of militaristic xenophobic frogs. The story builds to a climax as all the peoples of Rice Boy's peculiar world take sides, invested in the ultimate success or failure of his undertaking.

Rice Boy's world is a strange one. It is populated by a variety of strange entities, not human but possessing very human personalities: not humans but still people. "Magical" or otherworldly phenomena are accepted as normal, and surreal Seussian landscapes and cities make up the native environment. The whole thing is drawn in a colorful style, simple but fairly detailed, which helps convey the unique character of the world. One gets the sense that one could live in the Rice Boy universe: that time and place run just as deep here as in our own history, as in the spaces we ourselves inhabit. One could live here.

Rice Boy's story is just as rich thematically as its world is rich in texture; its surreal inhabitants grapple with the same weighty and human issues that we all do, which helps to ground the comic. Religion, religious authority, uncertainty and faith are all a part of the world. T-O-E has met with several failures and false starts on his "mission from God" to find a fulfiller, Rice Boy himself wonders if the prophecy is not true, and T-O-E openly admits, "The whole business with God is pretty ambiguous." T-O-E speaks with conviction of the Creator of his disc-shaped world, but elsewhere confesses the distance and vagueness of the deity he serves. He openly admits a belief in a "god of the gaps." As if formulating an Agnostic's Creed, he declares, "My god is what I don't know." The themes of uncertainty resonated strongly with me, and even as a Christian, I could identify with T-O-E's dubiety over his distant deity. And I think we all can identify: whatever answers we've come by, at some point we've all had to admit some uncertainty on metaphysical matters.

Rice Boy also deals with self-doubt and self-confidence. Its titular character, as noted before, approaches the prophecy with reservation, a handful of "maybes," and little conviction that a small person like himself could restore order to his world. On the other hand, as a result of T-O-E's (incorrect) pronouncement that the first King Spatch was the fulfiller, Spatch II is convinced that he can do no wrong as a successor-fulfiller, and that his destiny is to conquer all lesser kingdoms in the name of the prophecy. T-O-E grapples with all of his past incorrect pronouncements, the false fulfillers that he was certain were the real thing. The tale's protagonists have to come to terms with themselves, and it subtly suggests that their self-questioning and realistic self-appraisal perhaps better qualify them to be heroes.

Even as the kingdom of Spatch, in Evan Dahm's words, "satirizes the bad bits of Christianity" [*], Rice Boy simultaneously echoes the paradoxical idea of "strength in weakness" found in religion. Rice Boy and T-O-E are unlikely heroes, who do not save the world through external force, nor even through force of will, but in spite of--perhaps even through--the hesitancy of their convictions. When thinking of "power through weakness" as it plays out in Rice Boy, I can't help recalling the Christian idea that Jesus Christ could save the world through death, suffering, and the ignominy of crucifixion.

Death, and death cheated, are also common themes here: the fulfiller must die in order to fulfill the prophecy, and T-O-E is the last standing member of a three-man cadre who were given immortality as long as they continued to search for the fulfiller. Later, T-O-E receives a mortal wound with a poisoned blade and is living on borrowed time, and more than once he is left for dead only to return. All of this is to say that Dahm, in creating this, clearly had his finger on the pulse of myth and has created a highly evocative story.

And this is as much T-O-E's story as Rice Boy's. In his choice of Rice Boy for a potential fulfiller, T-O-E apparently attempts to find redemption for his previous incorrect selections, for the tyranny that Spatch II has wrought. His travels are as much a focus of the narrative as Rice Boy's, and in reuniting with the machine men that he once left, he must return to his past (mistakes and all) before facing the future. Additionally, with an unforeseen twist at the end, T-O-E plays his role in the final conflict, and the story truly becomes as much his as Rice Boy's. It's a moment imbued with significance, and I won't give it away.

In short, Rice Boy is good, and if you enjoy a large, well-told story, you will enjoy reading it. There's a lot to talk about in this comic, and I've only touched on a bit of it. Also, Evan Dahm continues to tell stories set in the same world as Rice Boy, with his regularly-updating Order of Tales. Visit his website and read his comics--I fully expect that the visit will be worth your time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great, in depth review.