After an announcement this year at Emerald City Comic Con, Sleepless has finally arrived. To be honest, that cover is practically pretty enough to warrant a purchase on its own, but what’s going on inside?
Sleepless is the beautiful story of Pyppenia and Cyrenic, the illegitimate princess of Harbeny and her devoted Sleepless knight. What are the Sleepless? Well, for those of us familiar with the series’ pitch we know that it is very literally those who have forgone sleep in service to the crown. Readers of the actual comic will find that information strongly hinted at, but not properly introduced.
That’s actually quite an interesting element of this issue. Not only is the concept of Sleeplessness not pushed to the forefront in a gimmicky fashion, but all of the issue’s fantasy concepts are introduced slowly and without fanfare. Writer Sarah Vaughn is clearly looking to really build the secondary world of Sleepless. The story remains fairly simple for this first issue so a lot of that is relegated to quick mentions and beautiful design work, but that also means that it avoids a common fantasy pitfall. Overall, the tone of the story is one that seems to be looking to the future, with high hopes for bookstores, and a pace that is at once engaging and reminiscent of a fine, unfolding manga.
Tension and mystery are a surprisingly central part of the storytelling. Vaughn proves adept at arranging the situation to reveal her characters and uses this ability to keep the plot and tone centered while still endearing the cast to us. Many details are alluded to here, but many more are kept out of view, as made plain by the lack of a definition of Sleeplessness, in order to introduce concepts both naturally and as the story desires. The results are exceedingly ‘literary’ in style, and that tone is supported with a slew of references to The Wizard of Oz as well as who knows how many others that I didn’t pick up on.
Vaughn has a good handle of dialogue and the style of speech her fantasy world employs. It actually shows, as when she finally does need to drop some exposition, it’s comparatively stilted, though it has a bit of slack because you’ve already gotten so into it. Nevertheless, the characters are charming and the rules by which their world operates are pleasantly communicated, if not in completeness.
The richness of Harbeny is also a huge win for Sleepless. There’s obviously a huge amount of thought and research put into how this world resembles and deviates from its historical influences. At this point in time, such considerations are unfortunately politicized, but, while I don’t at all want to imply that Sleepless spends one iota of itself on such concerns (the comic itself is completely absent of the consciousness of our world or the negativity that commenting upon it would require), it is, just by existing, a fantastic counterpoint to any pedant who selectively points to historical accuracy. I’m just saying, codpieces and enforced costume changes are a lot more accurate to history than modern-day slurs and rape culture.
Of course, that’s the least of what the book accomplishes in this regard. Subtle references in the art establish what fashions are in, what trade routes the textiles might have come through, what kind of climate Harbeny has, and what kind of animals inhabit it, as well as what religions and customs are in place. So I may say that Sleepless #1 doesn’t cover a huge amount of ground, though that’s only if plot progression is the only metric you employ.
There are many talented artists at many comic companies, and more and more companies are turning out top quality pages, but Sleepless is a fine example of what one means when they say that something looks like an Image book. Leila del Duca does a pretty fantastic job here from top to bottom. The style and quality of the composition feels like a distinct and serious offering from a top-tier publisher and demonstrates a wide range of skills and an adaptability that provides a sense of solidity to the art in addition to its base level attractiveness. Obviously del Duca can go farther than she’s shown us yet, but she still makes an impression here.
The layouts are very striking and work to enhance their panels. Bold borders around evocative panels, creeping heraldry at the corners of pages, and subtle but effective hints or worn textile patterns pepper the pages and bring a level of visual refinement both superficial and central to the telling of the tale.
Speaking of textiles, they are a huuuge part of Sleepless. I already mentioned just how much of the writing is expressed through art, and del Duca and colorist Alissa Sallah deserve the majority of that credit. It’s unclear how the responsibility for the beautiful, patterned costumery of Sleepless breaks down between the art team, but it is stunning. The colors of Pyppenia’s dress, in particular, are genius and if it doesn’t become a staple of cosplay I can only imagine that it was outshone by some more significant design, or something must have gone horribly wrong for this book, because it’s stunning.
That said, there is one interesting stylistic choice that deserves some mention. Rather than painstakingly rendering every individual pattern by hand, Sleepless imposes them over the garments, regardless of folds or angle. Part of me doesn’t really care for this, even as I acknowledge that the alternative could easily have slowed this title to a halt. With fashion and patterns being such a big part of this book’s aesthetic, when you notice that they’re represented in this somewhat abstract fashion, it detracts from the impressive specificity of the setting. That said, it’s also kind of a cool effect. Not only does this allow you to enjoy the look of the clothing and the full effect of the designs at once, but there’s something almost magical about it. Intentional or not, it’s almost as though the clothes are windows to some platonic plane of fashion and heraldry, viewed through billowing fabric screens. All in all, it’s a fairly subtle thing, but I expect that both the readership as a whole and as individuals will be of two minds about it.
Though it takes a measured pace, Sleepless opens with a richness that’s hard to ignore. Careful, literary writing and incredible art transport readers to the land of Harbeny. Though the issue itself may not grab every reader, the care and beauty of Harbeny will give all but the most cynical plenty of reason to return. If you’re a fan of Monstress, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, or colors in general, Sleepless is well worth a look.