In Briar from Christopher Cantwell and Germán García, a familiar fairy tale is turned upside down and a long-slumbering princess must rise and save herself. What ensues is one of the best first issues in recent memory.
The former princess quickly learns that the world of whimsy and hope she fell asleep in no longer exists, and we are taken along on her journey. Much like us, she understands very little of this strange new kingdom, and even less how it came to be so brutal, but she quickly learns that survival is the only law. This is a harrowing first issue, particularly once the part of the tale we know comes to an abrupt halt. Briar Rose is left to face one horrific brush with death after another, even as she’s barely able to articulate her own feelings of confusion and fear.
The only semblance of cogent thought for much of the issue comes from the princess’ narration, which mirrors her struggle in interesting ways. Her narrator has been slain, you see, and fairy tales with happy endings are a thing of the past in this land. And much in the same way she has to rescue herself in the absence of the prince, so too must she take over the narrative and tell her own story. This is a brilliant meta approach to the very idea of stories, and it’s one of the many fascinating hooks in this first chapter.
Of course, well before everything well and truly goes to hell, readers are given a few hints that all is not well. Even as the story explores the elements of Sleeping Beauty that we recognize – the happy king and his family, the doting fairies – there are a few moments that belie a darker underbelly. Nobody is talking about anything important. Every day is the same and Briar Rose wants for nothing, but nothing ever changes in her stone bubble. Everything is absurdly simple, even the eventual terrible decision of “maybe we don’t have to wake her up.”
The world-building from Cantwell and co. in this issue is nothing short fantastic in every regard. García gives us so much in terms of little moments and details that show us how this society has devolved, from the overgrown palace and dark forest to the way every piece of clothing feels just barely draped over the people lucky enough to have clothing to wear. The old world of fancy dress and knights in shining armor is nowhere to be seen; everything is functional and worn only out of necessity — and if someone was able to scavenge it off another fallen soul. The characters are incredibly expressive, and you especially feel for Briar Rose in every moment of confusion and panic. Even when she finally manages to slay an attacker, it doesn’t feel like a moment to cheer, but to mourn her loss of innocence, which you can see etched all across her face.
Matt Lopes’ colors are a thing of beauty as well, perfectly capturing the retreat of light and love from the kingdom as it plunges into darkness. The juxtaposition between the rosy and bright opening scenes to the shrouded and dank ruins of the “present” are jarring in a darkly poetic way. The lettering from AndWorld Design also leans heavily into this change, with jagged sound effects and hoarse speech bubbles replacing the fanciful captions at the opening of the book. It clearly pains Briar Rose to speak, and you almost wish by the end of the issue that she could sleep for just a little bit longer, just to escape her sudden terrifying reality.
Every bit of the world we’ve seen so far has its own palette and tone, and one gets the sense that this first issue only scratches the surface of what’s out there. Briar is already shaping up to be a story that I want to see through to the end, even if a happily ever after is off the table.
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