An epic of mechanical men and a weaponized woman

Evan Dahm's Rice Boy was a psychedelic tour through the surreal landscape of Overside. In his latest epic, Order of Tales Dahm returns to Overside, but in stark black and white, chronicling a young storyteller's transformation into a legendary hero.

Today marks the completion of Order of Tales, Dahm's 700-page comic set in the land of Overside. Dahm created Overside (the top side of a disc-shaped planet; the other side is aptly called "Underside") in his earlier comic Rice Boy. Dahm has admitted that in writing Rice Boy, he made up the trippy world as he went along, designing characters and introducing the world's bizarre features as the story demanded. By the time Rice Boy completed and Order of Tales began, Overside felt like a fully realized world.

Although they are set in the same universe, Rice Boy and Order of Tales are starkly different comics. Rice Boy is a deliberate exercise in surrealism; its protagonist undertakes a mission from God and is bounced from one oddball creature to the next, often with little control over his own fate. Order of Tales is, by contrast, a traditional fantasy epic, featuring a classic hero's journey. It's as if Rice Boy set all the rules with its freewheeling hand and Order of Tales, like a dutiful child, must follow them. Even the distinct visuals reinforce their respective roles. Rice Boy is all colors, with experimental flashes of black-and-white movie stills thrown in. Order of Tales is black and white, its drama heightened by the chiaroscuro.

An epic of mechanical men and a weaponized woman

Order of Tales follows the path of the hero's journey, and it's not surprising that we open on the childhood of Koark, son of a master Storyteller. A tragedy leaves Koark orphaned and saddled with a quest; he must learn about a story called "The Ascent of the Bone Ziggurat," a story filled with dangerous secrets. His only tool is his father's book, a book filled with rare and important tales from Overland's past.

Along the way, Koark encounters The One Electronic, a Machine Man who features heavily in Rice Boy, and the Bottle Woman, a living MacGuffin filled with a mysterious liquid. As Koark attempts to protect the Bottle Woman and learn about the Bone Ziggurat, he finds that his position must shift from storyteller to hero of the tale.

An epic of mechanical men and a weaponized woman

It's clear from the story's structure that the ending will be bittersweet for young Koark, but the real pleasure in Order of Tales is in watching the story and themes unfold. Dahm's style becomes almost cinematic here, with movement carefully laid out across many panels. It gives the comics a clear sense of pacing and an almost quiet, contemplative feel. The visual weirdness of Rice Boy is here, but used to a different effect. For Koark, Dahm employed a simple style: wide-eyed and frog-like, so the reader can instantly engage with him. Other designs are even simpler, giving Dahm a ready set of extras. The Hornèds — whose heads are two large eyes set beneath a pair of pronged horns — are only distinguishable from one another by their ornaments, and the Blackbirds — who resemble, well, anthropomorphic blackbirds — are not distinguished at all. The truly bizarre character designs are used sparingly, and meant to evoke a sense of intrigue or menace. In particular, the Bottle Woman, whose body is a transparent bottle, insides are sloshing liquid, and head is a cap, stirs up invasive questions in the readers and characters alike. What is she made of? What happens when she's damaged? And what's that stuff inside of her?

An epic of mechanical men and a weaponized woman

And the significance of stories and storytelling is key to Koark's journey. Initially, Koark uses his precious stories as currency, reading them to intrigue The One Electronic or to curry favor with a foreign king. But he gradually realizes that knowing and repeating stories is not enough; to protect Overside and grow into his role as Storyteller, he must be willing to enter the story and even take on the identity of one of its characters.

Order of Tales is probably best enjoyed as a sequel to Rice Boy. A few key Rice Boy characters make cameo appearances in Order of Tales, and their appearance may feel a bit random to Overside newbies. And it's especially exciting to watch Overside grow in Rice Boy and then mature in Order of Tales. But even if Order of Tales is your first trip to Overside, there's still plenty to enjoy.

Order of Tales [Rice Boy]