HCZF MONTH! There are times you pick up a small press project and realise that the term “labour of love” isn’t even remotely adequate to express the obvious thought and care that has gone into it. Akio Volume 1 (subtitled Suigin Valley) is one such book. Published by Dreambaked, this manga fantasy saga is the work of Curtly Ferguson and C.H. Barnett and is the first collection in a projected series of three.
From the outset that commitment to world-building is evident in both map form and in the detailed history of the realm of Dalos where the action is set. The story is centred around the declining Martial Arts Clans of the land, once greatly respected channellers of the power of the soul but now in decline thanks to the machinations of the ruling Monarchies. Akio is the youngest member of the Dragon Clan, trained as a fighter by his grandfather Gramps, aka Saruwatari, who sends his protégé on a quest to reunite his missing family, with a mysterious gemstone for safekeeping. On his journey Akio will face thieves, dark entities and fellow martial artists on the way to learning the realities behind the Clans’ slow demise…
As a genre piece Akio is not breaking new ground in any overt way but it is a solid story with a likeable protagonist, an engaging supporting cast of characters, and enough interweaving plot threads surrounding the core mystery to keep readers entertained and guessing. In terms of artwork Akio is suitably dynamic, kinetic even, in its fight sequences. Great consideration has also been given to sound effects and lettering in the way they complement and enhance that sense of motion. One standout visual tool used throughout is the way in which Akio’s depiction changes dramatically for effect, with a relatively realistic portrayal suddenly changing between panels to a more stripped back caricature to denote extreme emotions or reactions to events (example below).
Akio’s story of a privileged class ruling through propaganda and misinformation, suppressing opposition, and valuing materialism over humanity has a relevance that makes the book feel extremely topical despite its fantasy setting. There are moments where there are storytelling naiveties, most notably in some heavy expositional information dumps that swamp pages in text and would have benefitted from being represented more visually over an extended page count. But the enthusiastic pacing elsewhere goes some way to make up for this. Once again, HCZF’s excellent curation has pointed me in the direction of small press creators I was unfamiliar with which is something of an achievement in itself. Looking forward to seeing where Ferguson and Barnett go with this series next. You can find them in Hall Two at HCZF.
Curtly Ferguson and C.H. Barnett • Dreambaked Studios, £15.00
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Review by Andy Oliver