THE LOST CARNIVAL, available from DC on May 5, is a YA-focused graphic novel about an adventure in the early life of Dick Grayson. Dick is feeling the call to see the world, away from his parents and the circus life, when a mysterious carnival appears on the scene. Is this book low-brow tweeny melodrama, or is the carnival ticket worth the price of admission? Let’s find out.
THE LOST CARNIVAL was written by Michael Moreci, and he sets a very high bar for YA novels set in the DC universe. There’s a tendency among YA authors to lean heavily on teenage angst and contrived drama for emotional impact, leaving the meat of the story for a distant second place. Teenage love triangles, falling in love with the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, mean girls bullying the new student, and on and on and on. Thankfully, Moreci avoids all of that here and focuses on a top-notch story that reads more like Romeo & Juliet crossed with an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories.
Plot (No Spoilers): The Flying Graysons are the headline act of a failing, traveling circus. Dick Grayon, about 17 at this time, is feeling a pull to see the world and all it has to offer. Frustrated by a life that never seems to change, Dick starts breaking a few family rules as he straggles with the need to feel independent and find his own way in the world. While dropping in on a party his parents don’t know about, Dick encounters the mysterious Luciana who is part of the nearby, competing carnival. It doesn’t take long for Dick to figure out Luciana and her carnival are not all that they seem.
Let’s set a few expectations. This Dick Grayson (known as the first Robin to Batman, and eventually Nightwing) is purely presented as the youngest member of the Flying Graysons. Aside from a brief interaction with a tarot card reader, nobody mentions Robin, Batman, or Gotham City. Effectively, Moreci’s story is Easter egg free and avoids any foreshadowing to Dick’s future, crime-fighting career. Got it? Good.
What you do get is a teenage love story wrapped in a supernatural mystery. There’s a little bit of magic, and yes, some family drama. More importantly for a mystery, Moreci wrote a twist on the bad guy reveal that I honestly did not see coming. It’s hard to surprise me with mysteries, so Moreci earns high praise for pulling a rabbit out of his hat that I didn’t expect..but truly works.
Another high point in Moreci’s writing is the dialog. Every conversation between Dick and his parents, between Dick and Luciana, between the carnival and circus folk, felt very natural and believable. I didn’t roll my eyes once during any of the exchanges. Moreci created characters that talk like real people in extraordinary circumstances, and that’s the best compliment I can give for dialog.
From start to finish, Moreci wrote an entertaining story that keeps a steady pace, is inhabited with interesting characters, and encompasses a solid mystery. Be warned – there’s a lot of crying, but it fit the story.
Illustration credit goes to Sas Milledge with Phil Hester. Milledge does a tremendous job illustrating a fairly large graphic novel (175+ pages, not counting the covers and credits pages). This is a YA novel, so every scene is going to have somebody getting angry or sad or falling in love – in other words lots of emotion. Milledge deftly covers the range of expression on every characters face at the right time and in the right place.
The overall design of the characters and the setting gives the book a classic, B&W movie feel. Think about the simplicity and wholesomeness of the The Wizard Of Oz when Dorothy is still in Kansas. That tone works for the story and the setting perfectly.
There are two areas where Milledge’s art doesn’t quite work as well – the hair and the movement. Almost every character’s hair that isn’t cropped short seems to be constantly moving and in conflicting directions to what the character is doing. It’s a small thing but it stands out with so many close up panels. This could be improved by matching the hair movement to the motion of the character.
The other area is the movement of the characters. The Flying Graysons are acrobats, and Dick employs acrobatic movements in a few of his fight scenes. Milledge’s movement art tends to freeze the characters midway through their motion, and that kills the momentum of the panel. This could be improved by adding speed lines to the characters when called for.
Admittedly, those two points were minor distractions and were mostly prevalent in the first couple of chapters. Milledge’s art distinctly improved through the progression of the book, so it becomes less of an issue as you read through. Nice job, overall.
Favorite Panel/Page: Page 188 earns the favorite page spot for this book. Again, no spoilers. Dick has just lost something precious, and you see three successive panels where his expression changes from shock to shock to realization to grief. No dialog or narration, it all comes through by art, and it’s a gut punch.
The colors are sparse in this book as it’s drawn to mimic a B&W film, but that doesn’t prevent David Calderon from doing great work. What Calderon has done is use an old movie trick of using different filter colors to represent different settings. Dick’s circus is colored in all blue tones. Luciana’s carnival is colored in all sepia tones. Calderon’s color choice here infuses each setting with distinction, and actually helps inform where you are in the story. That’s something most coloring examples don’t do, so kudos to Calderon.
Moreci gets praise for writing the dialog, but Steve Wands’ lettering helps bring the story to life. The word bubbles were as naturally integrated into each panel as the dialog itself. At no point did word bubbles crowd out the artwork or feel pasted on. With a few exceptions, there’s almost no narration, allowing the art to tell the story where words don’t. This was a wise choice because I never felt lost or confused by what was going on. Sometimes less is more, and this is as much a great example of lettering AND a great example of when not to letter anything at all.
THE LOST CARNIVAL is an almost perfect example of the type of YA novels the comics publishers should be putting out. Moreci’s story fits neatly within Batman canon so as not to put DC fans off, but it completely works if you have no knowledge of Batman lore. Forgetting a few nitpicks, the entire art team did a stellar job. Pick this book up, from DC on May 5th, for an enjoyable read.
Author’s Note: Local Comic Shops (LCS) are going through a tough time right now with the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19. Comics fans of every flavor that care about his or her LCS should try to do what they can. So, here’s my part:
If you’re in Northern Delaware, South East Pennsylvania, or Southern New Jersey area, please take a moment to visit Captain Blue Hen Comics in Newark, DE. Say ‘hi,’ pick up a book, order a book (they’re on Comichub.com), and let them know you support them.
If you’re nowhere near that area, please find YOUR LCS using Comic Shop Locator and lend your support.
Thanks, and stay safe.