Before we look at The Mortal Instruments Volume 1, you should know that I’m not the biggest fan of Urban Fantasy. Urban Fantasy has succumbed to trope fatigue incredibly fast compared to other subgenres, with the blurred worlds of Interview with the Vampire, Twilight, Vampire Diaries, and what have you all buying their characters off the rack from the same mall store, so that you could take a break from the Anne Rice vampire books twenty-five years ago, watch the last episode of Vampire Diaries today on Hulu, and know exactly what’s going on: vampires are special, and you want to be one, or you want to love one. To be clear that I’m not singling out vampires, they’re just the most entitled among the wizards, werewolves, faeries, and demigods who deign to live among us in the same rapidly-fading rags, nearly washed to white in a surprisingly strict genre formula1. The constant churn of Lestat’s hand-me-downs has made urban fantasy the tabloid version of high fantasy.

When I say that The Mortal Instruments gets out of the rut of Urban Fantasy, I want to be specific that I’m talking about the Yen Press graphic novel. The Cassandra Clare novel may or may not have some of the virtues as the graphic novel. For some of the reasons stated in my first paragraph, I haven’t read the original novel, and to be honest, I probably would have dodged this graphic novel edition if the great people at Yen hadn’t sent it to me for review.

What really sold me was Cassandra Jean’s beautiful art, distinguished by economy of line and an almost arcane focus on archetypes, so that she brings this mythic content to the forefront along with the figure art. At times her sparse line seems magical in its ability not only to evoke a scene, but to summon a mythic context. If with so few lines she can create a narrative scene and people it with spirits, I see no reason why she can’t create a functioning solar system with a few hundred lines or so. In terms of her own personal style–things that I’m convinced she brings to the work apart from the Shadowhunters content–I’m reminded of Charles Vess, P. Craig Russell, Michael Kaluta, and Colleen Doran, as well as the Pre-Raphaelites and A. E. Waite.

Though I was enthralled by the graphic portion of this graphic novel, the novel portion was diverting as well, and I may be interested enough to pursue the prose works of Cassandra Clare, simply so I can see for myself the way she made the invisible world of makebelieve into a mythology. For what seems to the central aspect of this story is the precocious teenager whose imaginary friends are real.

Because what is unseen is unknown, Clare taps into what Lovecraft calls the most primal fear, and the source of all “weird fiction,” the fear of the unknown; as the plot progresses, the veils to this hidden reality are stripped away, and Clary is immersed in magic. That she is separated from her mother when she is introduced to the mythic world should not be ignored, as this makes it more of a rite of passage, a time of crisis through which she passes not only into the mythic world but into adulthood. While written with a light “slice of life” tone, The Mortal Instruments Volume 1 not only has these Lovecraftian undertones, but also touches on some deep religious theory, such as Victor Turner’s concept of liminality, and Mircea Eliade’s thoughts on the profane and the sacred (“a reality that does not belong to our world yet is encountered in and through objects or events that are part of the world”). The Mortal Instruments is not a graphic novel about living in the world, but about a transforming experience, about becoming something more real than the banal backdrop of your run of the mill urban fantasy.

Overall, The Mortal Instruments Volume 1 was an excellent read, and I highly recommend it, not only for its light tone and swift pace, but for the deep ideas that arise to a closer and more attentive read–when not brought shining to the surface by the artist.

The Mortal Instruments Volume 1 arrived on shelves November 7th, 2017, and you can also find a list of online booksellers on the Yen Press webpage.


1Granted that most pop culture genres are past their half-life, and even long-lived and well-preserved subgenres like high fantasy often look like they’re a rack of travel brochures printed in the nineteen sixties, minting an escapist idealism that’s foreign to 2017 (regardless of how appealing they look in an age when orcs are real).

mortal instruments

Yen Press sent the review copy.

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