I keep it real here so I’ll admit City of Illusion is my entry into Victoria Ying’s work as a cartoonist (she has contributed to many films I’ve both seen and loved) but I have been aware of her because I’ve often stopped at her City of Secrets while browsing for books for cart glory. What has stopped me is that while I marvel at the unicorn that is a true all ages comic, I typically don’t invest a lot into either young adult or kids comics excluding weeklies I get of various manga. That isn’t at all to say my own interests are advanced, enlightened, complex, or better in anyway or even aren’t at time decisively juvenile if broken down, I’m just sharing the bonafides that I don’t possess as a reader.
I’m also not much for summaries and descriptions, you can go google these things on your own, there are countless review sources that reword the marketing blurb and add at the end some form of yay/nay for you to peruse, but I will share the three things that really made an impression on me, strong ones, as I introduced myself to Ying’s work. If you just need a gist it’s apparently a city hopping duo of friends – Hannah and Ever – in a steampunk dropback looking for that city’s robot as they dodge an antagonist who is doing the same. I’d guess every book is a new city, new robot, new denizens and friends as they do so, but that’s just a guess.
In those aspects City of Illusion is perfectly fine and cute.
I will begin by just saying I like Victoria’s art. I guess it makes sense given her background in animation but the art reminds me of art that I’ve either bought or looked through at auctions that are showcasing Disney animation prelims, storyboards, or concept art. A lot to graphic novels you see for young readers, even and maybe especially the super popular ones, have very dashed off or gestural art. These can be both effective and beautiful in their own right but Ying’s work feels incredibly rigorous relative to them, even as she leaves many panels quiet and not as detailed as others, not showing facial details at a distance etc, they are still very full in content and the moment and fill a page. She loses nothing when she doesn’t add these things.
It’s very appealing and sets a high standard and while many of pages adhere to an unbalanced grid, she will blow it out every now and to great effect.
When she pulls back to show landscapes from a distance you get scale in her work that I really appreciate and you don’t often see for a comic for this age group. She’s got skills, she’s worked on big projects, and she’s treating her own work as such and often it’s a lot with, again, a little – city blocks from above with just simple shapes but feels majestic.
The second thing I noticed is related to and makes the first even more impressive. This isn’t a small book. It’s over 250 pages which makes it slightly shorter than say a Tillie Walden graphic novel and you get a lot of the aforementioned art. I haven’t read City of Secrets but combined with it Ying has 500 pages of this story out in the world. These are substantial books and that’s a substantial amount of storytelling pages to have out there already especially in colour and it’s just a ridiculous amount of pretty great pages, that feels way more auteur in effort than a lot of stuff I see younger people in my life read.
The third thing I noticed is somewhat of a criticism.
Well it was.
I went back and checked again and I have to recant some thoughts I initially had about the lettering though I do still think a lot of lettering in the word balloons specifically feel very uniform. I suspect given what age this book is directed at that perhaps clarity was the chief concern or maybe it was just an artistic choice that I just didn’t feel the same way about. I suspect the latter because too much thought went into the rest of book including the lettering on various sound effects in the book.
When I went back and thumbed through I did come out of it more impressed with those sound effects. Again, this is a very cool, and almost unbelievably rich book in terms of what Ying puts down on paper for the reader. Something does feel odd or unfinished with the lettering though.
Another confession… I guess even as a big fan of speculative fiction I’m not much of a steampunk mark. Certainly there are examples of steampunk I very much enjoy across mediums (the world(s) of Miyazaki, James P. Blaylock, Tim Powers among others) but it’s definitely a setting choice that isn’t the most fruitful for my tastes. It feels like a gene that I may just be missing because as so many people I know would highlight it as a favorite aesthetic, but I think I come from the angle of there are a handful of sort of iconic Steampunk artifacts that have to appear in every steampunk anything, be it comics, novel covers, posters, prints, tumblr, film, tv, whatever, and after awhile I’ve just seen them all too many times. I think I’ve seen enough zeppelins to last my lifetime by like 2010 and I got enough of big goggles between Seth Green in his totally iconic (and by now probably problematic) role in Can’t Hardly Wait and various DMX music videos which admittedly is a height we should all aspire too. I mean… what you really want?
There is a character in City of Illusion that I really dig too because she gave me Zatanna vibes. When it comes to DC comics, if I have an affinity for a specific corner in that universe it’s for the Shadowpact and Shadowpact-adjacent characters.
I may be team Chifa/Tanan tbh. I’m here for the Chifa extended universe.
I’m pleased to have been introduced to Victoria Ying’s work, I can see myself buying her future work, even if this specific series isn’t for me, and I did not hesitate to recommend it to my youngest niece and goddaughter both of whom enjoy comics and fancy themselves as future artists.
I do want to point this thing that really crystalizes that Victoria Ying is a person taste. If you go to her website and read her bio you will this:
She loves Japanese Curry, putting things in her shopping cart online and taking them out again and hanging out with her dopey dog.
There are many curries in the world worthy of my plate but it not only takes a keen and well traveled mind to know that Japanese curry rules all of them, it takes one with great ability to gauge what’s truly important in the world to include it in their bio.
Let’s get back to the work though and this is the single best thing about City of Illusion. There is an interesting collage of things going on that calling it steampunk doesn’t fully or properly do justice. Yes, that vibe is there and with it the natural Victorian feel that comes with it, but the characters are more Dickensian in nature, and I’d say Ying’s art is more coming from that direction, but also… and I want yu to stop here if you are a spoilerphobe…
I repeat stop reading now. You good, time to go about the rest of your day and leave this blog!
…adds asian flavor, japanese curry level, where my girl Victoria gives us full Japanese idol battle hymn in this joint and had me going all Lyn Minmay ham in my house!
I think I’m going to make some now and maybe read more Victoria Ying comics.