Let me start by telling you about the baggage I brought to reading this. Long-time readers will know that I like Svetlana Chmakova’s work and I was looking forward to reading more of “Nightschool” after the first arc was done. She teased at the end of vol. 4 that it wasn’t going to happen right away because of a “secret project” that had to come first. When I read that I thought that whatever it was needed to be very special to overcome the, “Oh, let’s see what I’m getting instead of the next volume of ‘Nightschool,’” that I was going to apply to it.
Then it was revealed that this project was an adaptation of James Patterson’s young adult fantasy novel.
I’ve never read any of his novels, but his extreme prolificacy has fostered a deep antipathy towards giving him a shot. While the majority of my time is spent reading comics, I do take a break to enjoy the odd Stephen King novel, or something that my friends have strongly recommended (“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” “Game of Thrones”). With Patterson, I look at his output and wonder just what possesses this man to employ so many co-writers to churn out five or six books a year. Are his ideas that compelling? Is he afraid that they’ll rot if he doesn’t get them onto the printed page? Regardless of what the critics think, his books are routinely bestsellers. To me, they seem almost indistinguishable from one to the other with his output resembling an assembly line rather than any kind of creative process.
The other thing is that nearly all of his books are suspense thrillers set in the real world. So when an author who is known for specializing in this genre decides to write a fantasy novel, you have to wonder. Does he really has a story to tell or if he’s just arrogant enough to think that his skillset will transfer over to this new genre with little to no adjustment? That’s the kind of thinking that I brought with me to “Witch & Wizard” and while most of it was borne out, I will concede that the story itself is not without its merits.
It starts off with an attention-grabbing flash-forward as the Allgood family is about to be hung by the New Order, the political party that controls the country, in front of a stadium of onlookers. Their crime: practicing magic. We then flash back to the fateful day when the family’s house was raided by the N.O. (subtle abbreviation, isn’t it) police and the kids, Whit and Wisty, are accused of being a witch and wizard, respectively. They’re both dumbfounded by the news and as their parents give them some sure-to-be-plot-critical items before they part, Wisty is literally consumed by flames of rage. This lets everyone know that these are the kids they’re looking for and the two Allgoods are forcibly separated from their parents, tried, convicted, and sent to a hospital for further study of their abilities.
Do they somehow escape and team up with a group of kids with similar abilities and find that they’re part of a prophecy to save the world? Do I love “Blade of the Immortal?” The answer is obvious and anyone familiar with this kind of story will be able to see every plot twist and turn as it comes. It’s like the man took every convention from the fantasy rulebook and threw them in without any consideration as to how he could put his own spin on them. Remember what I said about transferring the skillset for writing real-world suspense into fantasy? This is the kind of issue I was talking about and it’s not even the biggest problem here. “Witch & Wizard’s” biggest failing is that for a fantasy story, everything in it feels so mundane. The Allgood’s abilities, concepts like the “shadowlands,” the talking animals, the whole endeavor suffers from a lack of imagination with regards to the world it strives to create. Yes, it’s familiar “one step removed from our own” but when the magic on display is so conventional, that familiarity works against the story and makes the fantastic seem all the more ordinary.
It’s something that “Nightschool” didn’t have a problem with even though a lot of it was set in a school and borrowed a lot of social conventions from that setting. Yes, the fantastic was treated as ordinary, even routine in this setting, but it still had character with its star professor routinely demolishing and rebuilding his classroom, a river suddenly appearing in a hall to accommodate the mermaid guest lecturer, and a human/vampire romance played entirely for laughs. It wasn’t perfect, but it had an effortless charm and energy that’s lacking in great part from this work here.
Now, I don’t think that’s entirely the fault of Chmakova because she’s effectively shackled to adapting Patterson’s book. Part of me thinks that there must have been times when she was writing this where she went, “I could’ve done this so much better!” In working with that author’s world and characters, a lot of her trademark style and flair is muted but you can still see parts of it burst out from time to time. Usually this in the art as there are plenty of times that the characters display an exaggerated manga-style cartoonishness in extreme circumstances. This could’ve come off as a horrible style clash with the rest of the book, but Chmakova makes it work. Really, her art has improved further still after “Nightschool” as the action scenes are easier to follow and the storytelling is as clear as ever. It’s too bad that the story doesn’t give her the chance to really cut loose.
That said, one I will give Patterson credit for is that the man knows how to pace a story and keep its momentum going. Though the fantasy is mundane and the events are predictable, there was still a swiftness to the pacing that kept me from getting bored. Though Whit and Wisty (yes “W&W” just like the title) aren’t particularly distinctive characters, they are likeable enough and the villains so “Boo! Hiss!” nasty that you eventually become interested in seeing the heroes triumph over the villains. Things also move quickly enough that I was surprised at how much incident they were able to cram into the 200+ pages here. For all its flaws, this kept me reading until the end. So on that level I have to concede that Patterson’s reputation as a crafter of “page turners” is well-deserved.
I also have to admit that he certainly knows his audience. Making his book about teenagers with special powers fighting an oppressive regime in a world that hates and fears them is something that will definitely appeal to that specific demographic. (It also remarkably similar to the premise behind the “X-Men,” but since that series was also founded on teenage fears and alienation I’m willing to let it slide.) It also threatens to undermine everything I’ve written here as I am at least twice the age of the intended audience for this book. As I’m 32, I think it’s safe to say that Patterson wasn’t writing this with the intention of someone like me reading it and I’m sure that the teenagers it was intended for will find a lot more to like here than I did. That said, I look at some of the “Star Wars” comics I loved when I was in high school and find that they have aged rather badly. It could happen, but I’m not betting that this will become any kind of classic for the ages.
So I didn’t hate this volume of “Witch & Wizard,” but (perhaps inevitably, I’ll concede) it never made me stop wishing that I was reading the next volume of “Nightschool” instead. I know that previous adaptations of Patterson’s young adult books have sold like gangbusters, so I’m hoping that this will do the same for Chmakova, make her a huge boatload of cash, and raise her profile enough so that when she does go back to “Nightschool,” she’ll be able to do it for as long as she wants. When she does, I also hope she also takes note of how to pace a story so that each volume can be it’s own beast instead of one 800 page graphic novel split into four parts. That’s just me, though. Whatever Chmakova does next, I’ll pick that up too.
*Crosses fingers and hopes that it’s -- you guessed it -- more “Nightschool”*