REVIEW: Aki Alliance

Recently, I had a conversation with Comix Tribe’s Tyler James regarding giving your comic away for free to a wider audience versus charging for it and potentially limiting your readership.  I argued in favor of charging, because for me it’s a question of value.  Even if it’s a nominal fee, I think if people are willing to pay for your work, it does give it a sense of worth, and if you’ve put the work into creating something of a professional quality, I feel it deserves to be treated as a professional product.

Which brings us to Aki Alliance, a 200-page graphic novel by cartoonist Ryan Estrada.  After working on this hefty tome for 6 years, he has now put up the entire graphic novel to read for free online.  That’s right, I thought it best to start with that.  You can read Aki Alliance for free online right now, no fees necessary.  And I’d highly recommend checking it out.  I actually feel that Estrada is doing himself a disservice, as this is a great little story with charming art that I think could do very well in the bookstore market, and deserves to make a good bit of money.

The story revolves around Aki Akuyama, an exceptionally bright 12-year-old schoolgirl who is left miserable by the fact that she has no friends in her new school.  Her inability to see anything through has led to her joining and quitting multiple school clubs, earning her the ire of the various kids involved in these jilted societies.  Her classmate Ella Spencer challenges her to see just one thing in her life through, and the pair come up with a bet to see if Aki can make friends with everyone in her class before graduation.  It’s a simple, easily marketable premise, the structure for the whole story laid out in the opening pages, and it’s one we largely stick to, the recurring image of the class photo with faces crossed off keeping the narrative’s climactic goal effectively in sight.

In the early stages, Aki Alliance seems ready to play like a pacifist Scott Pilgrim VS the World, with the list of evil ex-boyfriends to batter replaced with a list of girls to befriend.  Like Scott Pilgrim, it’s based around a simple, goal-driven premise – and the artwork is somewhat reminiscent of O’Malley’s.  But, also like Scott Pilgrim, Aki Alliance turns out to be more complicated than its simple premise would suggest.  We soon discover why Aki doesn’t have any friends: she’s selfish, manipulative, and doesn’t seem to have much genuine interest in forming friendships so much as she is about crossing faces off her list and winning the bet.  A character like this could be very hard to like, but Estrada makes her more callous moments so outlandish – and has other characters acknowledge the moral ineptitude of her actions – enough that Aki retains a degree of charm in spite of her flaws.

These flaws in fact give Aki a compelling arc over the course of the narrative.  The moral of the story is ultimately that widespread popularity amongst all your peers pales in comparison to the genuine, lasting friendship of even one person.  Or is it?  Even as we reach the final pages – including an interesting new perspective on the very telling of the story – we’re left with a degree of ambiguity about Aki and her true intentions.  Beneath the cutesy facade, Aki Alliance is surprisingly complex, even dark.

But though I have plenty of good things to say about Estrada as a writer, it’s as an artist that he truly shines.  Aki Alliance is a triumph of visual storytelling.  At its very base, nuts and bolts level of construction – the panel layout, the look of the pages – Estrada convincingly presents these 200 pages in the format of a scrapbook, with the panels and captions looking like they are glued or cellotaped into place.  It makes the graphic novel look unique, but at the same time it still very much works as a comic book, and the inventive format doesn’t detract from this.

But where Estrada really has fun is with the diversity of art styles.  At first, it threw me off when the art changed to a more simplistic Peanuts style in the fifth chapter.  I thought Estrada was taking a shortcut, trading down from the quirky style he adopted in the previous chapters.  But then the next chapter adopted an 8-bit videogame style (along with Facebook wall post style captions), I belatedly realised that Estrada was shifting his visual style to fit the theme of the given chapter.  So we get a dead-on pastiche of chibi-chibi manga style for one chapter, and moody Sin City style black-and-white noir with heavy blacks for one conflict-driven episode, amongst others.  Estrada demonstrates the many strings he has to his bow, and by making each chapter stand out the aforementioned sense of cleverly-structured forward momentum is further enhanced.

Another compliment I should give to Estrada regarding his artwork is that, though his regular style appears at first to be very simple and scant on detail, I came to appreciate that Aki and her classmates each have their own distinct look, and as such each feel more like individual characters in their own right rather than one amorphous mass.

When preparing to read Aki Alliance for review, I was cautious.  That page count of 200 was pretty daunting at first glance.  But once I got started, I read through the whole thing in a single sitting, and was left wanting more.  This graphic novel is a joy to read.  Fun all ages reading suitable and accessible for kids, but with enough cleverness and wit to engage adult readers too.  Ryan Estrada is definitely a talent to watch.  If you’ve got a little spare time, you should definitely check out Aki Alliance right now.  Did I mention it’s free?

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