A fresh premise with character-focused storytelling urges traditional comics in a new direction.
Reviewed by Daisy Fentiman
The comic book was born and bred an American art form, but the mainstream comic book industry suffers from a few self-imposed problems: first, that it deals primarily with the superhero genre it pioneered for fear of changing formula; second, that most characters are licensed and owned by comic companies, who hire writers and artists on a freelance per-page commission, which means that decisions in the final product are out of the hands of the creative task force; and third, that it has traditionally aligned itself to appease one demographic: generally, white, straight, cis-gender males ages twelve to thirty-five.
But what does this have to do with the pilot issue of “Raising Dion,” the infant comic series by writer Dennis Liu and artist Jason Piperberg?
“Raising Dion” tells a familiar story: a young man, due to Exceptional Circumstances, is bestowed super powers and now must learn what it is to be a hero. It is there, however, that cliché takes a backseat to innovation. The story is not told from the titular Dion’s perspective, but instead the reader is introduced to his story through the eyes of his mother, Nicole, the true protagonist. As a single African-American mother of a young, gifted child, she’s not the hero we expected, but definitely the one we need right now.
The twenty-two page first issue introduces us to Nicole and illustrates her relationship with her son through a series of scenes that ring true due to their frank depiction of everyday family life and naturalistic dialogue between mother and son. The rest of the issue is told in flashback, as Nicole examines her relationship with Mark, Dion’s father. It’s in these scenes that the skill of the illustrator is clearest; the subtle expressions Piperberg matches to Liu’s dialogue makes the chemistry between the characters palpable (particularly, the scene where they meet for the first time at the office). Nicole’s entanglement with Mark—their playful banter, how they pay careful attention to one another’s interests—seems natural and easy for it. Exposition is handled thoughtfully and with a light touch in most circumstances, and overall good pacing highlights plot and character arcs quickly without feeling unduly rushed.
While “Raising Dion” fights many ineffective comic conventions, a few manage to find their way in. Nicole’s internal dialogue, in traditional narration boxes, is voicey (“Being a single parent is already one of the hardest things I’ve ever done… but when your son has superpowers that’s a whole new set of problems.”). However, some of it is used for cheap foreshadowing devices that are extraneous, given the subtext the scene already paints (“But on Valentine’s Day, at Mark’s Cabin a few hours upstate—everything would change”). Additionally, the switch from present day to flashback is not instigated, but forced; that is, nothing in the scenes with Dion does anything to trigger her memories, making the switch seem a narrative choice more than a character one. In many comics this may not seem so gaping, but in a character-driven narrative with an otherwise linear progression, it seems slightly jarring. However, these are small issues, as most of the comic is working quite well.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about “Raising Dion,” other than the emphasis on character, voice, and pacing, is the story’s potential. Dennis Liu is the writer and creator of “Dion,” but he is perhaps better known for his film directing credits, which includes commercial work for Pepsi, Google, Toyota, and more, as well as a short, critically acclaimed sci-fi film called “PLURALITY.” His film skills and marketing prowess helped launch “Raising Dion” into the public eye; when he released a free-to-download version of the pilot issue, he also released a live-action trailer for the series which shows, more in-depth, what overarching plot the series will take, as well as Nicole’s daily struggles to guide Dion’s heroic path. The response to the video was tremendous, and it did quite possibly exactly what was intended: to attract people who don’t read comics, because they’ve traditionally been ignored as a marketable demographic by the major comic companies, and to get them interested in reading.
Jason Piperberg, the artist, also adds a great deal to “Raising Dion.” His other comic credits include “Champions of Hara” and “Spaceman & Bloater.” His light style, without the heavy, moody shadows currently dominating the superhero genre, is an energetic and refreshing treat.
Though “Raising Dion” is a part of the superhero genre, it breaks that genre’s conventions by giving us a truly character-driven story, where it’s not just lives on the line, but our own humanity and the humanity of those we love. It is a great example of a creator-owned endeavor (meaning that those making the comics have a personal investment in the content), and it appeals to a broad audience because it values the experiences of those whose voices have traditionally been ignored. It’s a great premise well-told, with broad appeal and a unique voice; one only hopes that voice remains throughout the series.
Assistant Fiction Editor Daisy Fentiman was a creative writing major and art minor last year at LSSU. Previously, she studied at the Kubert School of Cartooning and Graphic Design, the premier comic book trade school in the country. Besides being an art nerd with focuses in comic and digital art, Daisy is an avid reader and lover of middle-grade fiction. She plans to earn an MFA in Graphic Novels, and spends her free time working on storyboards for her first graphic novel.