Naomi Novik’s well-known fantasy series, Temeraire, is a spectacle in text—a summer-blockbuster style story about seafaring, globetrotting militarist dragons. It requires not so much a big screen, as the dome of a planetarium. It makes ironic sense that Novik’s first experiment with a visual medium, Liberty Vocational Volume 1: Will Super Villains Be On The Final?, a manga series co-created with British/Chinese illustrator Yishan Li, is set in the prosaic confines of a contemporary American school.
Relatively prosaic, that is. Liberty Vocational’s students are the sort of children who can turn the water in the plumbing to concrete, read minds and save lives—it happens to be a superhero school, one demanding enough to make 16-year-old Leah Taymore seriously doubt her ability to keep up. Leah’s superhero talent—the ability to manipulate atoms (hence the concrete in the water pipes)—is a major-league skill, one that marks her out for greatness. But earning an early admission into Liberty is one thing, keeping up with the school’s gruelling schedule, even as a super villain is secretly trying to sabotage her education, is quite another.
Liberty Vocational Volume 1: Will Super Villains Be On The Final? Naomi Novik & Yishan Li Del Rey, 162 pages, Rs 391.
Novik’s fondness for playing with genre clichés is on full display here; it will be hard to find two kinds of stories more popular in visual media than superhero tales, and high school ones. Li’s art also plays with archetype, marrying manga convention with strong visual characterization, creating a motley but eminently likeable support crew for the cute, permanently wind-blown Leah.
Novik’s knack for creating memorable characters is so strong that greyscale composition sometimes fails to do justice to their full range of features. From the cold, competent Victoire twins, Leah’s seniors and frequent saviours, to her clever, warm-hearted roommate Yuzana, and the mysteriously non-heroic Paul Lyman, Novik draws on the stock casts of high school dramas and infuses them with the quick wit and staunch if complicated morality that distinguishes her characters and their relationships here, as in the Temeraire series.
But Novik’s talent for writing stout-hearted heroes is always outshone by her glittering villains. The Napoleon Bonaparte of the Temeraire series is a megalomaniac, but also a visionary, a mesmerizing and abundantly charming leader of nations. Novik glories in writing the Lucifer types—the men and women who know they will make great emperors and fight to achieve it, without caring that the project of empire itself can warp and diminish their genius. Hints of a similar arc seem to be setting in motion with the attractive Alexander Bane, a man with a mysterious fixation on a project for “the greater good”, but a very unorthodox set of morals. He also happens to be Leah’s ethics teacher.
Having chronicled a chain of mishaps—and solutions—that have not endeared her to the formidable principal of Liberty, Alaide Santos, or to Calvin Washington, the burnt-out superhero mentor whom Leah worships from afar, the volume draws to a close with some loose ends tied up, but far more left unresolved, and tantalizing hints of others to come. Novik and Li’s first collaboration is juicy, entertaining young adult graphic fiction at its best. Novik’s younger fans, or her more manga-inclined ones, might even find themselves awaiting the next instalment of Liberty Vocational far more eagerly than the new Temeraire book.
We don’t know yet if super villains will be on the final exam. Going by the manga’s early promise, we may do well not to expect that there will even be a final exam.