What if the fairy tale princess wasn’t interested in being rescued? What if Prince Charming didn’t want to be either a “prince” or “charming”? What would that mean?
Princeless (2011-2012, Action Lab Comics), written by Jeremy Whitley with art by M. Goodwin and colors and lettering by Jung-Ha Kim faces down these issues with surprising and delightful results. You have probably read other works that try to turn fairy tale conventions on their heads but I doubt you’ve read one that is this entertaining.
This comic seemed to come out of nowhere but connect with a good number of readers. After all, there’s a market for young, capable heroines aimed at children (and their parents!). Whitley and Goodwin subvert fairy tales and gender roles but never lose sight of fun.
And ultimately, underneath it all, this comic is fun. It’s easy to use words like “sassy” and “feisty” for our lead character, Princess Adrienne, but she’s incredibly entertaining to follow. Adrienne escapes from her prison tower (shades of Rapunzel) and runs off with the sweet and slightly dopey dragon that’s supposed to be protecting her. While we learn she was better at swordplay than her brother, she’s still an unlikely heroine and one that’s mostly making it up as she goes along.
It’s also absolutely worth noting that Adrienne is dark-skinned and dark-haired — she’s not your typical blond-haired, blue-eyed princess. While Whitley makes a few jokes about this early on (Adrienne asks one prince if he knows what the word “fair” actually refers to, after all), it is something that’s just sort of there. By not making a big deal out of race, it’s all the more apparent.
The open, animated style of Goodwin’s art perfectly compliments the story. It seems to pull equally from role-playing video games, anime and webcomics. The bright-eyed, playful style makes this comic feel fresh and young.
Even the more heavy-handed parts are handled with humor and grace, such as when the blacksmith’s daughter, Bedelia, shows Adrienne “armor” for warrior women. Each outfit is recognizable to genre fans and therefore, clearly inappropriate for actual battle, but Whitley and Goodwin have a lot of fun with these scenes. Adrienne is completely incredulous when confronted with these options, and while the ultimate point isn’t anything original, the creators go about it in a delightful way. And once Bedelia comes around and creates a gorgeous set of armor for Adrienne, the reveal does feel like a revelation. She looks both beautiful and powerful.
But interestingly enough, this comic isn’t just a “girl-power” tale. Through Prince Devin, Whitley also explores the limited roles that are offered to boys, too. Devin isn’t presented a weak, just as a boy who’s more interested in art and poetry than he is in fighting. He also disagrees with the roles his sisters are forced into. At least, so far, Devin doesn’t play a major role but I want to see more of him.
At least through these first four issues (and I hope there are more since there’s so much more to explore! And because I want more!), the point doesn’t seem to be that traditional roles for girls and boys are bad as much as it does that girls and boys deserve to be allowed to be who they want to be.
I think it’s all too easy to feel frustrated by the sorts of images that are given to girls (and boys!) — particularly in comics, but also in all media — that it gives me hope when something like Princeless comes along. It is, if nothing else, an entertaining comic to read, but it’s all the more powerful because it also has something to say.
PDF review copies provided by Jeremy Whitley.