Sharon Shinn & Molly Knox Ostertag’s Shattered Warrior is a Manifesto on the Strength of VulnerabilityArt by Molly Knox Ostertag Comics Reviews First Second
Writer: Sharon Shinn
Artist: Molly Knox Ostertag
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: May 16, 2017
One of the great pleasures of reviewing any kind of art lies in the works that take you by surprise, especially when you consider yourself jaded. Shattered Warrior is exactly that kind of wake up: a sharp, beautiful tale of revolution that is both an excellent example of young-adult literature and the kind of book its generation needs. Being the kind of person who mostly reads books that have pictures in them, I don’t know Sharon Shinn’s fantasy novels, but they seem to be popular and reasonably acclaimed. Her collaboration with Molly Knox Ostertag, best known for her Strong Female Protagonist webcomic, feels incredibly natural.
The story of Shattered Warrior takes place on a planet populated by humans that has been conquered by much more powerful and technically adept aliens, the Derichets. A young woman, Colleen, works in a factory overseen by these overlords, extracting valuable minerals from hunks of rock. Her family is dead, and she tries to lay low, but when her younger sister is found, she discovers a new sense of purpose. The foundation of the plot isn’t all that promising, unless you are easily romanced by simple speculative fiction. But what the authors do with it is what makes the difference.
Shattered Warrior often resembles Star Wars, especially in its architecture and fashion design, both of which feel practical without sacrificing aesthetics and have an appealing kind of archaism. That makes sense. But it moves more lightly than many other space stories, unburdened by the weight of mythology and geography. Ostertag’s character design is deft and varied, with a thick, dark line that resembles that of Faith Erin Hicks, but a little simpler. She mostly uses her figures’ eyes and their body language to convey emotions.
Unlike a large portion of other novelists who tackle sequential art, Shinn doesn’t overwrite. There are chunks of pages that have no words or very few of them, allowing the story to develop through visuals rather than assuming readers won’t figure it out and leading them along a given path. The coloring is particularly notable, establishing contrasts between past and present through palette and mood. You could make a graph of how the colors evolve throughout the narrative and also have a good idea of the emotional tenor of the story based on what tones come to the forefront.
Finally, the plot moves. The authors don’t waste time on backstory or on explaining “why”s. Sure, there are a few complaints to dull the luster. The love interest is a convenient stand-up guy, a sort of magically strong and sensitive dude. The aliens evoke Elfquest with their stocky bodies and big ears. Sometimes the plot lacks friction. But on the whole, the flaws aren’t noticeable. Instead, the book has an ability to pick you up and carry you along on its emotional flow. It’s an escape and it’s a manifesto that says forging new connections is the best thing you can do in a world where your oppressors hold all the power. It’s a book about the strength you gain from letting yourself be vulnerable, which makes it both good and important at the present moment.