Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Princess Ugg #6. Written and drawn by Ted Naifeh (Courtney Crumrin, Polly And The Pirates) with coloring and lettering by Warren Wucinich (Courtney Crumrin), this issue spotlights the title character as a deadly fantasy hero while showing what she’s learned as a student training to be a proper princess. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
2014 was a great year for comics led by female characters. Marvel launched a number of new ongoing series starring female leads, DC dramatically overhauled its superheroine titles and found a bona fide hit in Harley Quinn, and creator-owned books spotlighting women are becoming more and more prevalent. Readers looking for distinct, female-led comics have quite a number of options this week, from the latest issue of DC’s Batgirl to the debut of Image’s Bitch Planet and a new chapter in the saga of Marvel’s female Thor, but none of these stories captivate quite like the tale of Ülga Of Grimmeria, a.k.a. Princess Ugg.
Ted Naifeh’s ongoing series from Oni Press is a brilliant take on the princess narrative, starring a Viking princess that is far from a damsel in distress, but trying to learn how to fit into a traditional feminine role. As a student at Princess Academy, Ülga is getting the education that will hopefully provide her with the means to stop the endless fighting that has defined her people, but that education also includes training to become an obedient, subservient female. As much as she hates being put in a vulnerable position, Ülga moves forward with her studies, viewing it as a quest she needs to accomplish in order to grant her warrior mother’s dying wish.
The book’s emotional weight stems from the internal conflict between Ülga’s aggressive Viking nature and the values she’s expected to embrace if she’s to become the woman her mother would want her to be. Ülga is an immensely strong female character (evident by just one look at her stocky, toned physique), but she’s forced to confront her weaknesses in order to progress on her quest. She has incredible skill as a warrior, but this series brings dimension to Ülga’s character by showing her difficulty with what is required of her as a princess.
Those challenges have made her an especially relatable figure for younger readers, who, like Ülga, may not be able to read or write very well, or have trouble making friends, or are bullied because they are different from their peers. Princess Ugg is one of the best comics currently available for young students, capturing the emotional reality of the school experience in a heightened fantasy world that allows Naifeh to amplify the spectacle. It’s easy to sympathize with Ülga through her struggles, and emphasizing how tough the process has been for the lead character makes her big moment of triumph this week all the more impactful.
In the Comics Panel review of this series’ first two issues, the book was touted as Naifeh’s “most kid-friendly yet,” but as it’s continued, it’s proven to be better suited for a YA audience. The big reason for that is the violence, particularly in this week’s issue. After Ülga’s schoolmates are kidnapped by bandits, she switches into warrior mode to go after the villains on her own, a mission that builds to a stunning two-page spread of Ülga hacking through a large group of men. Arms and heads are cut off and bursts of blood explode from the wounds, revealing Ülga’s might in detail that is probably a bit too intense for kids that aren’t allowed to watch PG-13 films.
This series hasn’t spent much time with Ülga in action, but that all changes in #6, giving Naifeh the opportunity to showcase his talent for staging powerful, dynamic fight sequences. Ülga is a total badass in this issue, and she never doubts herself in this regard. She’s extremely confident when it comes to combat, and when her schoolmates witness her courage and vigor, they start seeing her in a brand new light. Showing Ülga in her comfort zone is refreshing after five issues restricting her natural impulses, but the moments after the action are the most important parts of this story, showing how much Ülga has grown since enrolling in Princess Academy.
When asked by the leader of the bandits to join him in a life of lawlessness, Ülga realizes that she doesn’t want to live a life where she uses her strength without regard for others. The bandit believes that civilization is a prison, but Ülga has learned differently during her time at Princess Academy: Civilization is where strength isn’t enough, where people have to trust in others, even if they’re unreliable. “Without civilization, all men are enemies,” Ülga says. “And only a fool would sleep beside an enemy.” That last line is something Ülga was specifically taught by one of her professors as a reason to befriend her snobby roommate, and repeating it shows how Ülga has fully internalized the lesson and made it a part of her own personal philosophy.
Naifeh’s artwork on this series is phenomenal, combining a Disney-esque lightness with dramatic visuals inspired by fantasy masters like Frank Frazetta. That juxtaposition of styles is embodied in a striking shot of Ülga just before she rescues her fellow princesses, an image inspired by Frazetta’s “Death Dealer” that establishes how much of a threat this small girl represents. There’s humor in recreating Frazetta’s iconic painting with a young girl in a dress, hair in braids, cute hat on her head, sitting atop a tiny horse, but it also reflects the contrast of traditionally masculine and feminine fantasy elements, which is a significant part of Princess Ugg’s charm.
Warren Wucinich’s coloring adds depth to the linework and helps dictate the tone of each scene, using cool shades to create an ominous, tense atmosphere that is broken by moments of action and the warm colors that accompany them. Wucinich sticks to a limited, but evocative palette, establishing a point of contrast for the painted watercolor images that Naifeh sprinkles throughout the story. Naifeh uses watercolors to bring an ethereal quality to the story’s flashbacks, showing how Ülga idealizes these moments of the past through a richer, more delicate combination of color and line.
If Princess Ugg #6 had been released just a bit earlier, it would have propelled this book into The A.V. Club’s Best Comics Series Of 2014. This issue brings all the main ideas of the first six issues together in a way that combines thrilling action with meaningful character development, showing how Ülga has changed since the first issue without losing any of the attitude that makes her so much fun to read about. At Princess Academy, she’s been working to become the woman other people want her to be, but at the end of this story, she’s finally able to be content with who she is.