Evan Dahm has shown time and again he’s a master of deliberate, emotional adventures. He has been posting webcomics for well over a decade, each of them a different journey through detailed and imaginative worlds. Rice Boy began in 2006 and was published just last year by Iron Circus Comics, while Vattu just passed 1,000 pages earlier this year. The protagonists are not the sort of characters that most people think of when they think of comics; superhero comics tend to be fast-paced, inundating readers with information and action. Dahm’s work is careful and slow, and his characters are built up over the course of the whole story, layers peeled back in gradual progress.
Island Book is no different, introducing protagonist Sola and her companions in progressively more enthralling chapters. It doesn’t contain the same level of explicit violence as some of Dahm’s other work, but it’s just as much of an engrossing, exciting read that revolves around questions of identity and friendship and the choices people make.
Sola’s home seems idyllic at first glance, but it quickly becomes clear that she is ostracized on the round, verdant island where she lives. Still a child on the cusp of young adulthood, Sola seems more sad than angry that she’s called cursed by everyone she knows. When she was even younger, a monster visited her island and went straight for Sola as it destroyed swaths of her home, leaving her forever associated with the violence and desolation of that event. Her isolation and innate curiosity leads her to start a journey, launching into the sea in search of the monster so she can understand why it seemed drawn to her.
On the way, Sola meets groups of people she’s never heard of and finds new lands that are unfamiliar and frightening. But like many of Dahm’s protagonists, she greets each new thing with acceptance and respect, firmly enforcing her own boundaries and stating her own needs along the way. This careful balance between herself and others isn’t very familiar in a lot of stories like this one; heroes often sacrifice too much of themselves or demand too much of the people they encounter, but Sola is determined to fulfill her quest and she sees no need to hurt anyone in the process. It’s refreshing and empowering in a considered way, quietly done without fanfare.
Dahm’s art is frequently very colorful and features characters and locations defined by broad shapes that allow him to explore interesting character designs without being distracting. Sola and her island are full of smooth circular lines, and each of her companions and the people they meet are similarly tied to their homes by appearance. This is a hallmark of other middle grade books, but Dahm’s art is so graceful and the story so nuanced that it is easy to forget Island Book is targeted at readers from 8 to 11 years old. Characters struggle with questions of identity and agency in ways that will definitely feel familiar to kids, but will still resonate with a lot of adults, too. Sola can’t change the minds of the people who think she’s cursed, but she can go out and try to find answers for herself.
There are no easy answers, of course. This, too, is a hallmark for a lot of Dahm’s work. He deftly leaves many questions still open by the end of the book, but far from feeling unsatisfactory, the ambiguity is comforting and authentic. Sola and her friends are rewarded for their hard work, ingenuity, and bravery, but not because they solved the mystery, and that leaves Island Book feeling strongly rooted in reality while enjoying the imaginative and magical world that Dahm has built. It’s the perfect all-ages read for kids with a lot of empathy and curiosity.