This beautiful and moving short comic by Xulia Vicente (published by Shortbox, natch) is allegorical and speculative in equal measure. Since childhood, its protagonist Olivia has been able to see a female knight named Sierra, with a detachable head. Nobody else can see Sierra, but she is far more real than a hallucination, and she looks out for Olivia throughout her life—right through to her ultimate destination. It turns out that Olivia is not the first person she’s looked after, and it seems to be implied that everyone has somebody like Sierra hanging around them, but Olivia is the first one of Sierra’s charges that’s been able to see her. This has certain consequences for the course of Olivia’s life, making her perhaps more perceptive, and more aware of the value of the here and now than many of her peers might be. It is intimated early in the narrative that this is, to Sierra, some kind of punishment, despite the obvious kindness that she shows towards her charge.
So far, so allegorical. What makes the story speculative is that Vicente devotes nearly as much effort to representing Sierra’s experience as Olivia’s. For somebody who is superficially no more than a walking symbol, she sure has a lot of feels. In this, Vicente emulates the best speculative fiction, be it science-fiction, fantasy, or something else. It’s easy enough to ask a question like ‘what if there was a war but with space-ships and lasers?’ and easy enough to come up with a plausible answer, which is all that most SF and fantasy amounts to, frankly. What’s hard, and also what is truly important about speculative fiction, is to ask ‘what, if things were different in some way, would it be like to experience a life?’ To marry a rigorous investigation of such a question to a fundamentally allegorical scenario is harder still—Gene Wolfe, one of my favourite novelists, managed it extraordinarily well. In I See A Knight Vicente also gives it a very good shot, primarily by the sensible expedient of not laying it on too thick, of not labouring her points.
Her art is clean, clear, and three-dimensional, and her layouts are extremely expressive, deploying a wide range of techniques to vary the narrative pace and texture. I particularly like the big blocky white gutters she sometimes leaves among her panels, which act like punctuation to her visual sentences, and her use of bleeds is also well-judged, drawing the reader closer in to her visual world. Her drawing is clearly manga-influenced, with large-eyed, motile faces, and a basically mimetic illustration style that becomes more cartoonish in moments of intensity. Her techniques come together to produce a visual narrative of exemplary clarity, which feels all the more necessary when there is no single, simple meaning to the work. One of the meanings that emerged and resonated powerfully for me, as a parent, is the commingling of pain and joy that comes from having responsibility for another human being—a responsibility that can never be relinquished, however independent and experienced that other human may become. Sierra’s tragedy, and mine, is the inevitability of an eventual conclusion to the life in your care—whether or not you’ll be around to witness it. I’ve probably dropped too many spoilers already, so I won’t spell it out, but the end of this story brought me to tears.