Welcome to a world of mystery, of intrigue, of drama and deception. Where no two hallways are the same and the outside world simply cannot bring themselves to imagine the wonders the magic happening behind closed doors- or closed curtains. Welcome to a world of sparkles. Lots and lots of sparkles.
This is a spoiler free of “The Backstagers” #1 from James Tynion IV, Rian Sygh, Walter Baiamonte and Jim Campbell, one of the most delightful comics you will read all year.
Written by James Tynion IV
Illustrated by Rian Sygh
James Tynion IV (Batman Eternal, The Woods) teams up with artist Rian Sygh (Munchkin, Stolen Forest) for an incredible yet earnest story about finding a place to fit in when you’re kinda an outcast. When Jory transfers to the private, all-boys school St. Genesius, he figures joining the stage crew would involve a lot of just fetching props and getting splinters. To his pleasant surprise, he discovers there’s a door backstage that leads to different worlds, and all of the stagehands know about it! All the world’s a stage…but what happens behind the curtain is pure magic!
It’s not very often, in this lowly line of work known as comic book reviewing, that you come across a comic that feels truly important. Not important in the way that you’re told it will change the fabric of a superhero universe forever even though it will be forgotten about in months or important in the way that you already know the comic is being adapted to film or TV, but important in the way that you know this comic will change someone’s life. That’s a heady start to a review, I know, but I cannot understate how much of a breath of fresh air “The Backstagers” #1 is in this current comic book industry. Created by James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh with colours from Walter Baiamonte and letters from Jim Campbell, “The Backstagers” #1 is a celebration of love, life and masculinity in a way that we rarely, if ever, get to see in comics.
When we talk about diversity and representation in comics, most of the discussion revolves around the inclusion of as many different types of people as possible. The idea that every story must represent every kind of person is something that’s fairly impossible to pull off. What’s more effective and more engaging is allowing a large number of stories to represent a large number of people by focusing on their own kind of representation and allowing the overlap to build a market where anyone can find a cast of characters that appeals to them. That doesn’t exist right now, but “The Backstagers” #1 is hopefully another stepping stone towards that reality thanks to its cast of young men who are allowed to be vibrant, fun, happy and queer.
Because of the dominance of superheroes and male power fantasies in comics and how that has fed into our pop culture consciousness, the idea of the default male is one of rippling muscles, tight spandex and, generally, being white, cis and with black hair and blue eyes. “The Backstagers” is a polite and smiling disregard of that notion, focusing on a group of young boys in high school who come together through their passion for production design on high school theatre. It is a story built on an earnest look at the friendships built between young men through a shared passion that eschews the notion that male characters must be established through aggression and machismo rather than personality and charm.
James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh prove the perfect team to bring this comic to life. It’s over-the-top in the best ways, feeling much in the same vein as modern Saturday morning cartoons like Steven Universe with a heaping dose of anime inspiration for good measure. The sense of comedic timing throughout the issues of setup, beat, punchline more often than not ends in a closeup panel of a character framed in a pastel colour and with sparkles in their eyes. It’s a book about masculinity that’s not afraid to appear feminine because it’s creators clearly understand that acting feminine does not undermine masculinity. It’s a story about understanding that you do not have to follow the strict guidelines society creates for you based on your gender and the earnest character writing and over-the-top, cartoon-y style of art makes it a wonderful read.Continued below
Rian Sygh is maybe the MVP of “The Backstagers”, though, as his art makes it feel like a must-read comic even without the social commentary undertones. As mentioned, his style is very cartoon-y and exaggerated with many characters having blocky proportions and features built on exaggerated basic shapes. It brings an air of cuteness to many of the characters as square-jawed features are shown through a character’s rectangle head shape and a short, chubby character is drawn as incredibly round and adorable. It’s character design that makes each character instantly endearing, even without knowing anything about them. Sygh uses that to great effect throughout the issue by pushing that exaggeration in different ways to emphasise certain character moments that make you fall in love with these characters over the course of just one issue.
It’s not just the style that makes Sygh’s artwork notable, though, as his use of layouts and storytelling is top notch in this issue. Sygh has a fantastic sense of using story beats across multiple panels to get the most mileage out of a page. This first issue is a fast-paced wild ride through the backstage world and Sygh keeps that pace with each page essentially being a self-contained vignette of a scene that ramps up over the course of the issue to bring the characters to the climax.
Scenes don’t last long so each panel needs to bring something to the page, be it a character moment or a progression of the story. Sygh manages to find a balance of both that allows the introduction of five main characters and the wonderful and weird backstage world in a way that mimics that main character’s frantic journey through the issue without feeling like the reader is being bogged down.
This is helped immensely by the free-flowing and light dialogue from Tynion and lettered by Jim Campbell that focuses on humour and fun while keeping the dialogue beats short, quick and rhythmic. There’s generally only one or two dialogue balloons per panel that are snippy and convey all the information they need in as few words as possible. This keeps the pace fast, but also keeps the character interactions and the humour simple, making the writing more accessible to younger readers. The lettering uses thick block capitals in a handwritten style that makes it incredibly easy and dynamic on the page making even the larger dialogue balloons easy to get through, something that’s important for a book aiming to appeal to younger readers.
Bringing the comic to life is Walter Baiamonte’s vibrant colours. Baiamonte perfectly leans into the cartoon aesthetic of Sygh’s art with colours that are vibrant and simple, keeping the shading fairly simple so many of that colours seem pretty flat. As the weirdness of the world backstage begins to ramp up, Baiamonte brings the bloom and the sparkles, the deep purples and cool, pastel colours to bring a feeling of otherworldliness to the pages. Baiamonte makes great use of Sygh’s exaggerrated closeups to push the colours and help emphasise the large emotions of the panels. It’s a touch that brings the tone of the comic together, building a vibrant and earnest world that just feels fun to read and live in.
All in all, “The Backstagers” #1 is fantastic. Each of these creators are on top of their game and know exactly the book they want to make and exactly the tone they’re trying to achieve. It’s fun, it’s wild and it’s a ride that leaves you breathless and wanting more. It’s filled with characters that are broad enough to be instantly loveable with enough character to allow for great development in the issues to come. It’s an amazingly well crafted comic from great creators that is, above all else, fun to read. On top of that is the fact that this is a comic about young boys being allowed to express their own kind of masculinity in a way that is not afraid of femininity and subverts the idea that anything other than expressing masculinity as aggression is a weakness and you have a comic with a very important message.
Final Verdict: 9.6 – A genuine must read comic that will improve the quality of your life simply by existing in it.