Joe Harris, Adam Pollina, Brenden McCarthy, & Nolan Woodard: Wars in Toyland

This was good. I enjoyed the story, the concepts creatively put forth, and the art. I particularly liked the landscape layout; it lent itself to the journey the story takes you on. As for the story, it’s about a kid, Matthew, whose brother, Alex, went missing. While he’s try to cope with it and carry on until his brother returns, he plays with their shared toys, but it just doesn’t feel right without him. Suddenly the toys come to life and whisk him off to Toyland via the toybox. Toyland is a war-torn and war-weary world where toys are either at the mercy of or in the service of the Tediarchy headed by Roxbury. Matthew, who is respectfully referred to as the Captain by his toys, gets led to the rebels’ encampment. There he is told that he had been commandeered to lead the rebels in battle against Roxbury. From then on, the real journey begins, and it’s a good one.

I’m not going to go any further into it because it’s worth the read. Now, as I said, it’s a good story, however, there are two things that I would like to talk about.

If you plan to read it, do so before reading the rest of this. It’s not so much that spoilers are below, it’s just that the issues I bring up will probably influence your reading of it and it really deserves to be read without prejudice.

First, at the end of Chapter the Second, Matthew and his troops are surrounded by minions of the Tediarchy, then when Chapter the Third starts he’s demanding to be let go and his captor assumes that his motive is to run off again. Again. So this is either a poor choice of phrasing or more things happened between the chapters than just Matthew getting captured. Even though I’d like to have seen it and it did feel kind of abrupt, the exclusion of the row itself isn’t all that bad; there’s no need to spell out everything that happened to the reader. We see he’s surrounded one moment and captured the next, it’s easy enough to fill in the blanks, but when the narration or dialogue alludes to an escape attempt post capturing, that’s a picture of a moment filled with cunning and logistics that demands visual exposition. There’s also the chance that it’s a reference to something that happened earlier in the story, but he hadn’t been captured before he was surrounded at the end of Chapter the Second, so I’m not really sure what to make of it. But despite the actual reason, the feeling of something being missing remains.

The second issue is difficult to get into without giving too much away, so I’m just going to sketch out the basics. In the beginning, Alex went missing. The tone of the story at that time–worried parents, police involvement–leads your mind to places like kidnapping and running away. So when Matthew falls into Toyland, you start to wonder how the journey ahead will relate to the real world situation and you’re hoping by the end you’ll know, if Matthew comes back, if Alex is found, and why was he missing in the first place. While reading you’ll be trying to figure out which type of other world-real world nexus will be present. For example, there’s The Princess Bride, in which the narrator is reading the story and we spend time in both worlds. There’s The NeverEnding Story, another book, but this book is magical and it turns out that it was fate that the reader read it because he is part of the story. There’s The Wizard of Oz, in which we are to ultimately come to the understanding that everything happened in the heroine’s head while she was knocked out. There’s The Chronicles of Narnia, in which the characters physically steps into another world. And more like, Through the Looking Glass, Lathe of Heaven, Fight Club, and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. To which template can we refer to begin to understand the story?

As I read, I thought perhaps Through the Looking Glass or Where the Wild Things Are. The further along I got, Where the Wild Things Are became less of a match because there hadn’t been any switches back to the real world. But when I got to the end, nothing fit, and not because the story took a clever turn. Nothing fit because there was no payoff. There was no reward, no answered questions, just a return to the real world. The story was never put into context until an editorial afterword offered that “…Wars in Toyland uses the lens of fantasy to tell a tale of bravery, acceptance, and growing up.” But even that context is paper-thin. We never learn why Alex was missing and we never learn what the catalyst was for the birth of the Red Rook–we learn the reason, but it seems to be completely untethered. These are significant plot points that are never resolved and the ending abandons them as if they never were. Also, the last few panels present a situation with a physically impossible aspect that returned me to the question of the story’s nexus, and it wasn’t until I reached the end that I considered that the lines between fantasy and reality were being blurred. The story didn’t set you up for that, so for it to be presented to me at the end felt nothing like an “it’s all clear to me now” moment. Instead, I was very confused about what I should take from it when I consider everything up to that point.

So, is it good? Yes. Is it flawed? Yes. Should you read it? Yes, but I hope you already did before you read the latter part of this review. Also it’s a DRM-free title, so…

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