Raised by Raptors #1
Writer – Oliver Sykes
Art – Ben Ashton-Bell
I won’t dangle spoilers out of your reach in an effort to beguile your attention; I’m not the River Song of Sequart. Spoilers will abound in the following review, more aptly critique, because I want to talk about Raised by Raptors #1 and I don’t want to be bogged down with winks and nudges and concealed plot points. If you prefer your comics to be fresh, pull back now, read the first issue, and come back.
When first introduced to Raised by Raptors #1, my curiosity was aroused (and let’s keep it at curiosity) by the beautiful visual of a silver-haired Native American girl wearing a dinosaur skull. K’abel, the girl’s name, makes for a very effective mascot (as well as attractive humanization of Cubone). On one hand, she prepares the reader for the narrative focus of the series, that is, on indigenous American culture revealed in-story to be Mayan. On the other claw, her helmet reveals that there will be dinosaurs.
I was further intrigued by the title and the title’s promise. I enjoy the concept of ‘a child raised by animals,’ and I love to see a story that twists the format around, such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008). The title Raised by Raptors immediately intrigued me by suggesting a child parented by the villains of Jurassic Park. Even now, I can’t wait to see K’abel running alongside Velociraptors, imitating their hunting strategies.
Still, I was cautious, so I went ahead and researched the team that put this issue together — writer Oliver Sykes and artist Ben Ashton-Bell. It turns out Oliver Sykes is one of those people who makes me stay up late at night, probing the life decisions that have led me to my current mediocre flesh shank. Sykes is the founder and CEO of Drop Dead Clothing, a UK alternative clothing line, as well as the vocalist for touring metalcore band Bring Me the Horizon (BMTH). As of the publication of Raised by Raptors, Sykes can add ‘comic book writer’ to his enviable list of exploits.
Melbourne artist Ben Ashton-Bell is also a royally-talented first-timer. An illustrator and graphic designer, Ben’s preferred medium is pencil complemented by digital editing, a process which he does on par with industry professionals (Yee).
If I had to pitch Raised by Raptors #1 on the fly, I might describe it as Apocalypto meets Jurassic Park. The comparison would certainly describe the aesthetic of the work (while ignoring the issue’s unique infrastructure). The depiction of the Maya people, art, architecture, hieroglyphics, and ritual ceremony are similar (but not exclusive) to Apocalypto (2006). Moreover, segments of the comic’s plot align with the film:
“Set in fictional Mexico… during the Golden Age of the Mayan Civilization. The series focuses on the journey of a young Mesoamerican who is forced to flee her city after accusations of treason. Narrowly escaping a religious sacrifice and therefore becoming a fugitive, she finds herself inadvertently saving a pack of Velociraptors, who in return take her under their wing and raise her as their own” (Yee).
Well, okay, not that last part regarding dinosaurs. That’s where Jurassic Park comes into play, to which the comic pays homage. The most apparent allusion in #1 is the inclusion of Compsognathus, those chicken-sized scavengers featured prominently in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). Evidently, the upcoming raptors hinted at in the title will be identified, in lieu of Jurassic Park, as Velociraptors but resemble Deinonychus in body and snout size (Yee). Similar to the Spielberg franchise, the dinosaurs will not be coated in any form of plumage or proto-feather (Switek).
You could also describe Raised by Raptors from its “illustrative influences,” a few of which are included in the series’ Kickstarter biography: Fables, 300, Sin City, Northlanders and Watchmen (Ashton-Bell). Like Fables, humans share the planet with sentient creatures (in this case, dinosaurs) and a protagonist is provided with the capacity to mingle between both species. Like 300, grand gestures of violence are contextualized by a bad ass narrator. The same for Sin City. Like Y the Last Man, an epic fiction will embody themes of loneliness and self-destruction. Like Northlanders, the story acknowledges the exploitative power of tradition, and contains a quiet girl developing her strength in exile. Like Watchmen, the story takes place in an alternate history. But these comparisons are mostly speculation based on public statements. As of this review, only one issue has printed.
Unfortunately, when just looking at the existing story as is, just the data and nothing else, it’s difficult to find all of the grand ideas claimed by its creators. The interior of Raised by Raptors #1 is actually pretty sparse. The story stops amid the inciting incident — a massive explosion. We never see K’abel flee from the ritual in which she was intended to be sacrificed, never see her save a pack of raptors from their destruction, never watch her rite of passage into raptorhood. The only reason we know of these events is because they’ve been tastily included in the plot summary; they’re plot points meant to be public, possibly to keep the readership interested. But #2 hasn’t come yet. And it might not come for awhile.
Connected to this scarcity of content is K’abel, the protagonist and narrator. The writing does an excellent job of defining K’abel’s worldview for the reader; dark incidents in the past reveal her detached, resigned demeanor. K’abel has been overwhelmed by ceaseless death, sacrifice, and sexual exploitation. She is lonely and suicidal. However, the visual narrative doesn’t contribute much to the character but show her stare and weep silently. Her only physical movement is to unwittingly release a spell-bomb that destroys the upper-partition of a temple. It acts as a visible plot device and doesn’t seem wrought from character. Why would a little girl start toying with her mother’s gift when her mother is being dragged away to be killed? You’d think she’d be distracted by the murder of her only parent. Maybe the event plays into her psychological detachment from all things, even her mother. And, I don’t know, maybe Oliver Sykes takes character development tips from Albert Camus.
The visuals are alluring, of course. Ashton-Bell reigns over digital ink and atmospheric effects, although some of the body language is ungainly, even incomprehensible. The narration is either a burden or a bonus. The issue uses prose more often than pictures to convey it’s emotional interests; not surprising, as its writer is also a talented lyricist. Nonetheless, the exposition is as endless as it is dark. The reader is saturated with discordant stories of a blood-thirsty, murderous culture, but not much else. There isn’t, well, much fun. Overall, the story flow is less the waterfall it promises and more a slow, shallow brook freckled with golden flakes.
Oddly, when removed from its visual similarities to Apocalypto and Jurassic Park, and removed from the illustrative guesswork of comparing it to greater comics, Raised by Raptors #1 reminded me of two remarkably non-Mayan and non-reptile stories. Of all things, the narrative structure reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and the characters’ struggles reminded me of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (1984); both novels possibly unread by either the writer and artist. I said possibly.
Mrs. Dalloway explores a single day in the life of its titular protagonist as she prepares for a dinner party. The novel doesn’t stay with Dalloway’s present, preferring to slip into flashbacks that explore either the hostess or other characters in her life. Yet no matter how far or tangential it goes, the narrative dutifully returns to the “continuous present” as if there’d never been an interval at all (Stein).
In Raised by Raptors #1, the ‘visual continuity’ of the story tracks a little girl watching a priest behead her friend. The horrific event is kept from spoiling, however, as the narrator stretches moments into an eternity of anecdotes; analyzing the childhood friend, the high-priest, the girl’s father and mother.
Meanwhile, the comic’s concern with ritualized sacrifice reminded me of the adventures of Alobar in the first act of Jitterbug Perfume. Alobar survives two societal attempts to kill him. In the first, he is the ruler of a medieval society that solemnly slays its king at the first sign of a gray hair. Alobar finds that he prefers living over indulging tradition. Later, the character, now laboring for pseudo-Christian peasants, accidentally becomes the human offering to a pagan harvest festival. A portion of this offering involves being granted any comfort or wish that Alobar wants — for one week. Once more, the fugitive king barely avoids his death.
Kindred to this conflict between deathly acceptance or denial, the childhood friend K’isin is frustrated by his inability to escape the high comforts and respect afforded to human sacrifices. Unlike Alobar, K’isin is unable to break free from the custom or escape into the wilderness, and he dies sobbing and defecating himself.
That’s my take on the dinodystopia that is Sykes’ and Ashton-Bell’s Raised by Raptors. It has an excellent title, excellent protagonist (potentially), and an excellent premise. The execution of the first issue? Easily glossed over if I could get a second. Or a third. Or anything. As is, the first issue functions as a prologue to a series that will hopefully be better than its prologue.
Word on the street is that Gerardo Sandoval (Cable and X-Force, Top Cow’s Tomb Raider, Captain Marvel) has assumed drawing duties, letting Ben Ashton-Bell focus on coloring. I’m glad they picked up an industry professional for help. Despite some of my disappointments with the first issue, and chagrin over this year-long waiting period, I believe in this series and want it to succeed — if only to see a raptor pat K’abel on the head and say, “Clever girl.”
Ashton-Bell, Ben & Oliver Sykes. “Kickstarter of Raised by Raptors.” Kickstarter, 1 February 2013. Web. 7 May 2014.
Jarus, Owen. “The Maya: History, Culture & Religion.” Live Science, 6 December 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.
Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation” (1940). Poetry Foundation, 15 February 2010. Web. 2 May 2014.
Switek, Brian. “A Velociraptor Without Feathers Isn’t a Velociraptor.” Phenomena. National Geographic, 20 March 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.
Sykes, Oliver. “So It May Seem Quiet on the RBR Front.” Official Raised by Raptors Tumblr, 4 November 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.
Yee, James. “Raised by Raptors.” Kickstarter Conversations, 6 February 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.