Conspiracy of Ravens is a new all-ages graphic novel from Dark Horse that mixes something very old-fashioned and British, that all-ages storytelling infused with a glorious hint of darkness, with a more modern superhero-esque magical mash-up. Think somewhere on a spectrum that includes plenty parts Buffy, the Worst Witch, classic Brit girls’ comics of Misty, Bunty, and Jinty, all mixed up in the English folklore and mythology of Alan Garner’s works.
This is a modern all-ages graphic novel mixing mystery, intrigue, suspense, and a wonderful character-driven fantasy from Leah Moore & John Reppion, all wrapped in the artistic delights of Sally Jane Thompson‘s art. A must buy, no matter what your age.
In Conspiracy of Ravens, everything opens with 15-year-old Anne Ravenhall at boarding school, her life filled with the normal stresses of a normal-ish teen; exams, fitting-in, playing referee in-between her divorced mom & dad. And then, just to really turn her life upside down, she discovers she’s just inherited her long-lost aunt’s crumbling English mansion and a mysterious locket to go along with it.
But, as she’s about to discover, the old house and the locket are just the start of her inheritance, as this young girl finds herself as part of an ancient magical legacy, stretching back over centuries, full of secrets, dangers, and incredible adventures.
The white raven features throughout, linking present to past. A story is told, succinctly and perfectly, of an age gone by, where the white raven fell in love with and, when transformed to human form, married a besieged King. Their five daughters were born with magic in their veins, each one keeping something of their mother’s magical nature and passing it down through the generations. All done in just one page here, a perfect example of the economy of storytelling going on throughout Conspiracy of Ravens, saying so much so well, so succinctly…
Well, it’s not giving away much of the story to say that the magic is what we’re seeing now, what Anne’s discovering with her inheritance. It’s all set in motion the bringing together of a new group of disparate and diverse girls, all connected, through magic, through history, through the secrets of the house, gathering, just like the corvids do, a proper conspiracy of ravens.
And, just as in all the best literature, whether children’s lit or something for those boring grown-up folks, there are lessons to be learned and new words to discover. Here, it’s most definitely “Dissimulation”, defined as “a flock of birds of different species”. Although, the Dissimulation here is all about incredibly cool stuff; girl gangs who went out adventuring a century ago, fighting ancient magical dangers just like modern superhero types, just doing it better, and in full-on Victorian costume. And, in discovering just who and what The Dissimulation were, Anne discovers just who she, and her new circle of friends, have the potential to become.
Conspiracy of Ravens is a book that plays heavily, deliberately, on some of the classic tropes of children’s storytelling. It has the feel, at the start, of something written from another time, that slightly jolly hockey sticks Blyton-esque feel. But, before long, they turn it into something very neatly contemporary and new, absorbing the best of the old and adding in something that connects very much to the now. It quickly becomes obvious that the boarding school setting is merely the best possible shorthand to allow the adventures to happen without adult influence, without control, with Moore & Reppion delighting in throwing in more contemporary ideas, such a little steampunk here, some hi-tech there, superhero-ish ideas of teams forming. It’s all thrown into the melting pot and mixed up into a heady brew.
What Conspiracy of Ravens becomes is a perfect bit of contemporary magical folktale storytelling, storytelling that respectfully addresses the past and moves things on, beautifully, wonderfully. And so much of that is because of the third name on the cover, the woman without whom none of this would have ever happened: Sally Jane Thompson.
In fact, the whole idea behind the book came from Thompson’s artwork, in a most wonderfully roundabout way. She was having an art giveaway contest on Twitter back in 2012 and John Reppion was the lucky eventual winner, who asked for “corvids and Victorian stuff”. Lucky for him, but also lucky for us all, and especially lucky for the legion of loyal fans that, if there’s any justice in this world, will be eagerly anticipating volume 2! Because the art in question was this…
As you can see, the artwork Sally came back with encapsulated the core ideas of Conspiracy of Ravens: the young girl, the magical locket, the ravens bursting forth. Fortuitously, Reppion and Moore realised there was way, way more to this than just that one image and set about creating the series with Thompson.
I’ve seen her work develop over the past decade or so, since first discovering her work back when there was a real Manga-esque touch to it, transforming over the years to something far more stylised, looser, with a thickness of line that’s so evocative of so much that has gone before, almost sketchy when you see it first. But look closer and there’s so much control in every line, the control to not overdo things, to tell all that’s needed with fewer lines, and I even saw something almost of the Scott McCloud in here as well, never a bad thing.
Yes, with Conspiracy of Ravens, Sally Jane Thompson really has come good, and it’s a wonderful thing to see, an artist maturing over the years, her style maturing, shifting, condensing the signal to the bare minimum on the page, and creating something, page after page after page, that’s quite lovely. Mention as well must go to Nikki Smith, helping out with “tone assists”, and what tones they are too. This is a book that might have worked in color, but after seeing it in this blue-toned style, you can’t imagine it any other way.
You will hopefully find Conspiracy of Ravens on the shelves of your local comic shop. You certainly should, as it’s another perfect example of the power of comics to embrace all-ages, properly embrace them, with tales appealing to all, tales that don’t talk down at all to a younger audience, but fill them with a joy for experiencing the new, discovering magnificent ideas, new vocabularies, fabulous artwork. It embraces a glorious literary tradition of English fantasy writing while bringing something new and modern to it. It’s a wonderful work, with all involved at the height of their game.
I’d definitely recommend Conspiracy of Ravens to all, but more than that, this is one of those gateway books, and those need celebrating and promoting above and beyond. So yes, get one for yourself, but more importantly, buy a second and get it into the hands of a youngster, a young relative perhaps, or even better get one onto your local primary school library. It’s a book to make a child fall in love with the medium and there’s no finer praise I can think of than that.
Conspiracy of Ravens, published by Dark Horse, is available right now. Written by Leah Moore & John Reppion, art & lettering by Sally Jane Thompson, tone assists by Niki Smith.
You can find an excellent interview with team Moore-Reppion by Olly MacNamee here at Comicon.com.