Penny Palabras: Season 1 by James B. Willard & Patrick K. Beavers

This comic follows an unsettled girl being tormented by the Straw Man, a nightmarish creature that’s slowly working to drive her insane and eat her soul. The only friend she has is a peculiar librarian, and Penny’s world is a hostile place full of ghosts, mysteries, and despair. It’s an interesting premise for a comic, but it doesn’t live up to its full potential. The presentation of the setting, the absence of useful information, and Penny’s constant introspection prevented the comic from drawing me into its world.

The themes and the set up intrigued me, and I think the artist did a fantastic job drawing up monsters that communicated an entire personality just in the way they looked. The first episode drew me in, and I was primed to enjoy a disturbing mystery. I think there’s a lot of potential here, and both the writer and artist demonstrated that they have a good idea of how to put together a comic. That said, the issues mentioned above held me back from really enjoying myself.

The problem with the presentation of the setting is that the reader never sees how the world could be. There’s no glimpse of an ideal world, not prelude in which Penny has a normal life. From the get go, everything is strange, off. But, it’s only strange in the context of the world we live in compared to that of the comic. Without any contrast in the comic itself, everything that happens seems to be part of the natural order of things. When the entire world is strange and appears to have always been that way, it quickly becomes a new normal and prevents anything from standing out.

I think the comic would have been much better served if the first episode was in color, in a normal world we’re accustomed to. A chance for the reader to see Penny happy, to bask in banality. Sharp lines in the art, where everything is clear and defined, where it has its place. Then, the Straw Man could have appeared, the colors shifted to black and white, and the blurry art style could have replaced clean lines.

Without any of this, with the strange world rapidly becoming normal to the reader, a lot of the tension and horror gets sapped out of the comic. There’s no fear of the unknown and very little tension. That leaves the comic grey and dreary, rather than unsettling.

The second issue with the comic is that it gives the reader almost no helpful information about the world and how it works. Penny offers a morsel here and there, but for the most part the reader just has to accept the world as strange on its face. There are plenty of mysteries kicking around, but not much way for the reader to start figuring them out. The world seemed rich and full of interesting tidbits, but I never felt like I could really get my hands on any of them.

I think my biggest problem was the fact that everything in the world simply is, and there’s very little why given. The Straw Man is after Penny. Why? Because he is. Penny can see ghosts. Why? Because she can. I could go on, but you get the point. There are some explanations, but they’re usually delivered as lectures, such as the one concerning how time works for ghosts.

Additionally, when the comic does present a mystery and then explain it later, the explanation is usually anticlimactic or unsatisfactory. The reason Penny’s father is a broken drunk, the reason the library catches on fire, the librarian’s identity, none of these had a resolution that really struck me.

Penny herself is an introspective person, so most of the dialogue in the comic is her thinking to herself. It really doesn’t work for me. In a comic I look to the art, and what the characters say and do, more than what they think, to communicate the story to me. A navel-gazing loner just doesn’t make for engaging reading in this particular medium. I felt this entire thing would have worked better as a short story than it did as a comic, at least in the way the writer presented it to me.

In the end, I felt like I was following a drifter in a strange world. There were some nice postcards, but nothing there that made me want to return. It’s a shame, because the artwork set the tone quite well, and the story itself had a lot of potential. And to be clear, this comic certainly wasn’t bad. Even though it didn’t engage me, it also didn’t bore me. I really do think it has potential to become something unsettling. The first scene with a devil in it was the best in the entire season, so I know the writer and artist have the talent to pull it off. But as it stands right now, I give it a 3/5.

If you want to check it out, you can pick up the first issue from Amazon here.


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