Hereville: A Review

I’ve been working on this review for a while, and it’s been giving me a lot of trouble, because when I try to express my thoughts on Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, I usually end up bouncing up and down and making enthusiastic noises of inarticulate glee. These are behaviors that are generally frowned upon in critical circles, and they translate poorly to text, so I’m going to try my damnedest to use actual here.
Hereville is good. It’s really good.
It’s the kind of good that makes me want to carry a copy with me at all times, just so that I can look at it every few minutes as a reminder that any world that produces books like this one is probably worth the benefit of the doubt.
Comics that can honestly be described as all-ages are few and far between. Knitting a narrative that appeals to adults and remains accessible to and appropriate for kids is no easy feat. Imbuing that story with layers of rich culture and tradition without overwhelming readers, and doing so while slyly subverting both form and trope take serious skill.
Barry Deutsch is seriously skilled.
In many ways, Hereville is a classic coming-of-age story, the first adventure of a fledgling hero. It’s also a cultural narrative, steeped in the language and traditions of Orthodox Judaism. But at the same time, it’s full of contradictions and quirks that turn heroic convention topsy-turvy. It’s telling that the story begins with a friendly argument, as Mirka (the eleven-year-old heroine) and her stepmother Fruma discuss the theology of knitting.
Fruma herself is perhaps Deutsch’s most visible wink at tradition: as the heroine’s stepmother, a woman with ‘odd looks’ (including ‘the longest nose of anyone in Aherville’) and a stubborn fondness for argument-for-argument’s-sake, Fruma could easily have turned into a tired misogynist sterotype. But even though—or perhaps because—she forces Mirka to knit and plays devil’s advocate in every argument, Fruma is cast as Mirka’s mentor and ally. She’s challenging rather than vindictive, and we are led to believe that wisdom and experience inform her cheerful antagonism. And role in Mirka’s story is more empowering than authoritative: Fruma’s lessons, both subtle and direct, are what ultimately allow Mirka to defeat a troll and take the first steps toward her destiny as a dragonslayer.
Fruma’s complexity is characteristic of Deutsch’s approach to storytelling: he excels at simultaneously celebrating and questioning the tradition that saturates his narrative. The Orthodox Jewish rituals and traditions are no less warm and beautiful because of the limitations they impose on Mirka, nor does that beauty render her frustration any less acute or her ensnarement in the rigid roles of her culture less unfair. In the world of Hereville, nothing is simple—and its complexity makes it all the more accessible to readers used to the intricate tangles and contradictions of real life.
Deutsch is an experienced editorial cartoonist, but Hereville is (to the best of my knowledge) his first attempt at a full-length comic, and that inexperience shows through a handful of rough spots. Both designs and style develop and refine over the course of the comic, and the difference between the art at the beginning and the end is a bit jarring—a difficulty common to webcomics when they make the transition to print form. And while Deutsch’s sepia-toned palette looks beautiful by day, it becomes a good deal less discernable in nighttime scenes, where muddy coloring comes close to obscuring the art; Deutsch’s narrative (and readers’ eyesight) would be better served by more emphasis on shadow and less on general darkness.
But if there’s any lesson to be learned from Hereville, it’s that the quality of craftwork is determined not by snagged yarn or adherence to patterns, but by innovation, intent, and intricacy—and despite a few dropped stitches, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is an exquisite piece of work by any standard.
You can read Hereville a bit at a time starting hereas of this post, twenty-four pages are available onlineor get the whole first story in either digital or paper form (which I heartily recommend) via the links in the sidebar.
And while you’re waiting for your copy to arrive, you can discuss this column here.