By Melissa Tobin
In the first installment of the newest publication from Stranger Comics, Niobe bursts onto the page, running from a past that is only hinted at through the rest of the chapter. In the press release by Stranger Comics, she is described as an “orphaned wild elf teenager and also the would-be savior of the vast and volatile fantasy world of Asunda.” Not much else is explicitly revealed in the first chapter, but plot points are hinted at subtly and slyly, with the reader being expected to do much of the work in navigating the politics of the world Niobe comes from. It makes for an exciting first reading experience, as the reader endeavors to comprehend the dangers and powers that Niobe confronts right alongside the title character.
Written by Sebastian A. Jones and Amandla Stenberg, with stunning illustrations done by Ashley A. Woods, Niobe seems to be a game changer in the world of comic books that usually revolve around a singular white male hero. The women in those comics are mostly seen either as damsels in distress or as ladyloves with minimally developed characters and a penchant for breathy exclamations of worry. Comics have slowly been recognizing the need for strong, complicated female characters, and as a result are finally acknowledging their huge female reader base.
However, Niobe: She is Life is immediately recognizable as different in its explicit reference to issues of race and feminist themes, causes which are close to Stenberg’s heart and have been treated gingerly in the past by the writers of mainstream comics. As a woman of colour, and half-elf, half-human, Niobe combats institutionalized racism and also effectively subverts misogynistic expectations expressed towards her by other characters with impressive aplomb. The inclusion of politically-charged issues encourages a more nuanced interpretation of the events taking place within the comic, resulting in a more socially-aware reader at the end of it.
A comic book would be nothing without its art, and the illustrations here do not disappoint. The narrative flows between water, cave, and jungle landscapes, allowing for an enjoyable first read and, if the reader should choose to do so, an appreciative re-read. The inclusion of small details, like a character reaching out and leaving the confines of her gutters on the page, or the parallels made between a certain goddess and a glowing dragonfly, are like breadcrumbs left for the reader to devour and interpret as they will.
Without revealing too much, readers can expect to be immediately intrigued by Niobe, with the awareness that she has the capacity to be both good and evil at the same time. Jones and Stenberg have successfully managed to create a fully fleshed-out character that urges readers to enjoy the ambiguity of the story, whilst also getting lost in the fantastic world of Asunda.