Thieves & Kings catching on
[. . .]
Mark Oakley, the creator of the unique graphic novel series, Thieves and Kings is being given credit for getting youngsters reading by parents, librarians, booksellers, comic store owners, university professors and most importantly, children.
Kids are devouring his books in the same way they do Harry Potter.
Oakley, who moved from Ontario to Wolfville in 2003, having tired of city life, is too self-effacing an individual to compare his own modest success to that of J.K. Rowling, but others persist in the comparison.
“In the way the children anticipate the next Harry Potter book,” says Sonya Stanley, the parent of a capable but reluctant 11-year-old reader.
“They look for the nest Thieves & King installment, and then devour it.”
The reasons these books are creating such a solid readership are as many and varied as there are readers, but those numbers are steadily and deservedly growing, according to Calum Johnston, owner of Strange Adventures comics bookshop in Halifax.
“These books are absolutely unique,” says Johnston. “A great example of what comic books can be. Oakley is the only artist I’ve seen working to such a degree in this style, a synthesis of sequential narrative prose and illustrated comic. It’s a great way to tell a story.”
Style aside, the story and characters are what pull readers to this work.
At the center of this fantasy epic, which is eventually expected to be in seven volumes, are two young people that readers of all ages will relate to.
The thieve of the title, Rubel, is searching for the truth about his family, and Heath is a sorceress studying magic and all the responsibilities that come with it.
“These two are the Sun and Moon of the story,” says 34-year-old Oakley. “Everything revolves around them. And the thief isn’t just a thief, with all that implies about dishonesty. He’s a character who’s bucking the system, finding his way, fighting against what is expected.
“Something,” he says wryly, “that I certainly did. Rubel is like every kid at some point in their life.”
There is a myriad of other personalities however, that pull one’s loyalties back and forth as they vie for the “most riveting character” position.
The Shadow Lady, the strange imp Varkias, Quinton, the wonderfully witty, time manipulating Wizard — these are just a few.
It’s the magical weaving of these individual’s stories into this epic and also the minutely detailed drawings of each character that places these stories into a genre all their own — although Oakley admits to his influences: “C.S. Lewis, Wyle E. Coyote and Star Wars, to name just a few,” he grins.
“It’s a genre that lies somewhere between the novel, and theater or film,” says Andrea Schwenke Wyile, assistant professor of English at Acadia University.
Schwenke Wyile put Oakley’s fourth book in his (so far) five-book series on her fantasy course last year.
“There was a lot of suspicion when I included it,” she says. “It didn’t last. Members of the class became huge fans. Comics aren’t often taken seriously, but increasingly they’re being re-examined as part of what children’s literature is.
“This new form that moves between graphic novel and narrative prose, is really exciting. Mark will have a page of novel style set into a beautifully drawn frame and then, as the action demands, move back into the more recognizable comic strip style.”
A large part of Oakley’s skill is knowing where and how to move from narrative style to the other, choosing when to allow the pictures to tell the story for him, and when to resume in lengthier prose sections. So. . . back to the notion of getting children reading; once they’ve been caught up in beautifully detailed drawings, they can’t help but carry on into the prose sections that add substance to the narrative.
Schwenke Wyile thinks that the obvious passion Oakley has for his creations means the writing never condescends to its reader.
“Reading work like this lets you rediscover the things you were passionate about as a child,” she says, “and realize that in a lot of so-called children’s literature there is depths and validity that you don’t have to out-grow.”
The range of readers for Thieves & Kings seems clear evidence of that.
Seventeen year-old James Cloghesy, a Grade 12 student at Horton High School, picked up the book for the first time at the Wolfville Farmers Market where Oakley is a regular stall holder.
“I’d never seen anything like that before. I picked up one and was hooked.” Cloghesy, who describes himself as a “big reader, but not really a comic book fan” found the differences between this and other comics fascinating. “It’s not all violence like a lot of comics are. The story is absorbing and the illustrations are just brilliant.”
One 10-year-old girl stressed that “although they’re fantasy, they’re modern as well. They tell you it’s good to be the way you are. Who you are.”
A great reason for children to be reading them. Not too surprising a response either really, to an author who says, “I want my characters to be happy at the end of the story, when it comes. . . because I like them all.” [. . .]
Jeff MacLean, a reader in this thirties, focuses on Oakley’s involvement locally.
“He’s an important part of our community,” says MacLean. “He donates his books to the library, and local coffee shops. He’s talented, and generous — and here. These are not run of the mill comic books. They reveal a lot of truths about abandonment and contentment.”
Oakley sums up his attitude to his work in one of the quirky forwards to be found in each of his volumes, some of which include letters to bank managers when he’s been looking for the wherewithal to print the books. These inclusions would make an entertaining volume in themselves.
This one in particular, though, speaks to the nature of these stories:
As it turns out,
Stories are not just air and ink.
Who would have thought?
The act of imagining gives life.
Not some poetic metaphor,
In other worlds not so distant,
I am imagining you right now,
And you are never, never, never, alone.
—Shelly Thompson writes for the Arts and Entertainment section of the Halifax based, Chronical Herald.