Brüssli – Way of the Dragon
Written by J-L Fonteneau
Illustrated by J. Etienne
Published by Humanoids Publishing
Release Date: August 16, 2016
We live in age where nearly all media rely on references. From an innocuous sitcom on cable television to a meme to this review itself, we are surrounded by various works of media that have crutches made of the media of the past.
For that reason, many TV shows, books, films, and comicbooks, feel recycled, diluted, and irrelevant; by depending on the references to the past, they become weak imposters that fail to capture the fundamental essence of the present and the transcendent nature of the past.
No genre is more vulnerable to this problem and flooded with it than fantasy, particularly that of a medieval quality. Sure, plenty of modern works of fantasy are competent, even good. They rarely evoke disgust, which cannot be said of all genres, but they rarely innovate. So, most fantasy creations will not offend you, but they will not challenge you with any new thoughts or perspectives. They will feel safe in their use of familiar archetypes, but they will ultimately feel stale.
Occasionally, children’s works of fantasy can succeed (and provoke more than indifference from me) through playfulness and energy to get to the theme of most fantasy: the battle between good and evil. I hoped for this when I opened up Brüssli: Way of the Dragon Boy, but alas, within the first twenty pages, I defaulted to my normal thought of regret caused by fantasy creations, the one that asks, “Shouldn’t I just read Le Morte d’Arthur, The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Idylls of the King, The Iliad, or Greek mythology instead?”
Originally published as three books, Brüssli: Way of the Dragon Boy presents the journey of Brüssli, a half-dragon boy who has reached the age to notice that he differs from the people around him in the village of Stillendorf. Brüssli initially sets out on his journey in order to save his town from wolves and a notorious dragon, but as with all tales about a quest, the adventure turns inward, with Brüssli searching for his identity by locating his birth parents, forming a standard bildunsgroman structure for the graphic novel.
As Brüssli veers on and off course to his goals, he gathers up a mötley team consisting of Aldo, the town peddler and immigrant from Italy (a fact that author Jean-Louis Fonteneau is almost too enthusiastic to consistently remind you about), Margot, the loud-mouthed flea, and Dorette, the doll-like, aspiring opera singer and child of the Von Fonfon family, the wealthiest family of the region. On the voyage to save Stillendorf, Brüssli and company uncover a ring of slavery run by Dorette’s sister and the existence of a red dragon living in the nearby salt mine. While the main conflict of saving the town of Stillendorf gets resolved by the end of Book Two, Brüssli’s internal travels do not end, for he has become fixated on finding his biological parents. Book Three dedicates itself to this search and in the process, reveals the most insidious part of the story.
Brüssli comes from far more royal stock than anyone would have expected, and by the end, after a battle with demons representing the seven deadly sins (could there be a more trite group of villains?), he meets and reunites with his biological parents, leaving behind his adopted family who raised him and his traveling family who helped him on the journey. Brüssli now lives in a castle with monarchs with a life of luxury and power, giving Brüssli: Way of the Dragon Boy a too perfect storybook ending true to the messages of familial strength and unity promoted during feudal eras and extinguishing a way to make the whole tale relevant today and across time.
Fantasy succeeds when we as the audience can relate to the protagonists, even when they have experiences far away from our reality. Most decisions in our realities have overlapping conflicts and various complications, so a great amount of fascination into human behavior and fictional characters exists in simply understanding how we handle clashing internal, external, and combined motivations. This is why the Knights of the Round Table, King Arthur, and Odysseus will still capture my attention and Brüssli will be forgotten. Brüssli does not experience any complex conflict in Brüssli: Way of the Dragon Boy; he has no struggle with understanding the balance between his human and dragon nature. He does not wonder about what family should be the one he spends his time with: the biological family who was not able to take care of him due to circumstance or the adopted families who accepted him and nurtured him. Brüssli knows states what he wants and gets what he wants, and that, overall, makes for a pretty boring protagonist.
With a visual style much like the Disney animations of Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, the art of Brüssli: Way of the Dragon Boy looks as beautiful as those iconic films but offers nothing new or particularly outstanding. To add to the dullness of the novel, the peripheral characters have nothing unique or interesting about them, and most damagingly of all, Brüssli’s quest for his own identity has its solution and end entirely in the discovery of his bloodline, which defeats the entire purpose of the journey, rendering what should be an enlightening adventure into the world and self into a lame, glorified medieval path to aristocracy and royalty.
Thankfully, Brüssli: Way of the Dragon Boy starts and finishes in 166 pages, taking about 90 minutes to read in total. I would not be able to finish reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes in the same time, so at least I feel a little less regretful about the time taken to read a far more inferior work.