3 out of 5
Energetically drawn but with a somewhat confusing focus, Merwan’s ‘Aster of Pan’ is a jumble of dystopia / post-industrial tropes, given life and character by the artist and then driven all roundabout storywise over its 100 or so pages.
My main criticism (though it’s somewhat unfair, given that this is only a volume 1) is that the name of the tale highlights, presumably, its lead – Aster, an upstart youngster living in the flooded, food-scarce lands of Pan, though, we’re often told, considered an “un-Pan” as she doesn’t originate from there – but then spends an inordinate amount of time propping up other characters, or focusing on distracting world building to afford giving her her due. At first, Merwan bounces around a day of foraging with Aster and her friend (who we assume has a crush on her), and though it feels a little bit too much of a composite of other “post-” world types, such that Pan doesn’t really have its own identity, the characters are drawn with so much visual attitude and personality that it makes up for it. We’re bouncing around the lands, making offering to gods in exchange for found goods, trading for rice, and learning little bits here and there about how bartering and politics work, and it’s very casual – I was able to put down the story with no need to return – but also rather endearing in that casualness, meaning I was happy to pick it back up a later point.
But then, Aster’s friend’s missing brother – Juba – is named, and it’s suddenly like the story is about him. Troops from “Fortuna” – a ruling state of sorts, wanting to bring Pan under its thumb – shows up, and some rebel from Ceres (a Pan-adjacent sub-nation) drops in to tell the Pan’s to challenge Fortuna to some type of lawful showdown, and then it’s about kickball and Juba and for the latter half of the book, Aster is the least of our concerns. The repurposing of a game as a way of settling disputes is fun, in and of itself, but it’s another trope for the genre that further confuses the half-defined jumble of ideas Merwan is using, and the flip-flopping in character focus further undermines the drive of the book. Again, the inherent energy in the art helps keep us reading, but I simply wasn’t very interested in where the story was going, despite it coming back around in its final pages to show how Aster will become the actual protagonist again.