Learning And Inspiring In Luke Pearson’s ‘Hilda’ Comics [Review]
Charming all-ages comics that teach important lessons about gender -- while not actually being about gender at all -- are a unique and powerful thing. Luke Pearson’s Hilda books from Nobrow Press/Flying Eye Books are stories about a young girl named Hilda. She could have been any gender at all within the framework of the plots, but the choice to have a female lead in these stories serves a powerful purpose that extends beyond the page.
The title of the first book in the series, Hildafolk, is a play on the Icelandic huldufólk. Huldufólk are elves in Icelandic mythology thought to live in the rocky landscape: they sometimes had tiny houses built for them by Icelanders. The main character of Hildafolk is a young girl named Hilda who lives in a rocky, mountainous area with her mom and her pet fox-with-antlers, Twig. Quite quickly, Hilda’s world is established with a population of mythical creatures. Hilda is a risk-taker and wants to explore her world; she clearly considers herself an adventurer as well as a documentarian.
In the first tale, Hilda gets her adventures, a slight thrill of danger, new friends, and then comes home for dinner. It’s not a complex story, but it builds a world that offers a great deal to readers who are as adventurous as Hilda. It also establishes the building blocks for the later volumes.
The Hilda stories are sweet and charming, but not saccharine. There’s always a touch of sadness to Hilda’s adventures, and in how she learns to be a better person in the ways she interacts with the world — lessons we all should learn. For instance, in the first story Hilda reads in a book that you should put a bell on troll rocks so you know if they are coming towards you in the night — but fails to read the rest of the book to discover that this is a cruel, outdated practice that actually really bothers the trolls.
Hilda is apologetic when she discovers her error, and rushes to remedy her mistake with the troll, who kindly returns the sketchbook she dropped near him and then moves away quickly. There’s no forgiveness given and no resolution offered following her cruel mistake.
The art is beautiful and charming in an engaging way, and a limited color palette works really well for establishing this world. The blues of Hilda’s hair and skirt, some of the creatures, and the night, all contrast with the browns and mustards of “coziness” at home and the reds used for moments of action and excitement -- and in Hilda’s coat and boots. On the handful of pages where Hilda is out exploring on a nice day with a friend, her safety and comfort are conveyed in muted colors, with softer blues and browns in the background. Even though she is a young girl exploring the wilderness, the color tones give the feeling of safety — until she falls asleep and wakes in a world with snow falling under a red sky. It’s a wonderful use of color to stir the reader’s emotions and heighten the sense of drama.
The storytelling in the art is strong throughout, but there are a few pages where Pearson’s creativity particularly shines. The first page of Hilda’s explorations presents a variety of inset panels on the background of the grass she’s walking on, set in a way that makes them seem as if they are in her path. It’s a quick montage that shows a few of the fantastic things Hilda and Twig see throughout their busy day -- and a welcome break from more important plot business. The framing works well and it’s easy to understand, with no lettering -- a point that may be of particular interest for parents who want to read this with very young children.
A later sequence shows Hilda and Twig dashing off toward home at a fast pace, reflected in the staccato art. Pearson doesn’t even bother with panel borders for most of this page, opting instead to show a continuous flow of action as the two characters run.
For the second Hilda book, Hilda And The Midnight Giant, Pearson’s art style matures a little. The inks have more texture , the images a scratchier feel. The colors are slightly darker and more subdued; so is the story. The character design for Hilda, her mom, and Twig are sharper, slightly more angular. Twig is now white rather than blue, which will carry forward into the rest of the books. Pearson’s lettering gets much stronger in the second in the series, and he varies the style of speech balloons for different types of creatures. These are small changes, but they make the book feel richer.
The storytelling is more of the same excellence as Hildafolk, but Pearson takes advantage of a larger book size in this installment to add basically another row of panels to the book. From this volume on, the Hilda books have a more European size, and tend to default to four panels across on a page rather than the three that fit more comfortably within American comics sizes.
Because of that, though, at times the art can feel very tightly boxed-in as most of the pages have 10-15 panels each. On this size, each panel remains clear, but taken as a whole the pages seem very segmented and a little claustrophobic. Even though the books are all-ages and clearly great for young readers, there’s no reason why, with a strong storyteller like Pearson, slightly experimental page layouts wouldn't still be understandable.
Midnight Giant is sad, but packs probably the most weighty punch of the series as far as real-life lessons for kids. In it, Hilda and her mom find out that their house is right in the middle of land populated by previously invisible tiny elves. These are presumably based on the huldufólk of legend. The elves want Hilda and her mom to leave because they find them annoying. Hilda embarks on a quest to resolve this problem after her mom threatens to move to the city, which horrifies Hilda. In the end -- and this is a spoiler, but one that’s spoiled anyway by the other books in the series -- they have to move anyway.
This volume marks a major turning point for Hilda and the books. Hilda fears losing the myth and beauty of the place she grew up in, as well as the house that her grandfather built. This is something most Western children and adults can identify with. It’s less a moral about transitioning from childhood to adulthood than it is about a transition from the naiveté of early childhood (Santa Claus, anyone?) into the more realistic stages of later childhood. It’s also about what matters most — possessions or people? When her house gets destroyed, Hilda finds her answer: “It’s just wood and glass and a bunch of stuff anyway,” she says. The fearless girl is ready for the next adventure.
In Hilda and the Bird Parade, Hilda and her mom move to the city and the transition is difficult for both. When Hilda goes on an adventure with her schoolmates, she doesn’t understand the weird and taunting games they play. She makes a bird friend, and in the process of helping the bird out, finds things to love about the city.
Even more than being about the transition of Hilda’s life from country to city, the story is about Hilda’s relationship with her mother. The move to the city has changed the way they interact, but in the end it brings them closer together. Hilda has a solid but realistic relationship with her mother.
It’s in this volume that Pearson’s art really starts to soar. He employs more creative layouts than in previous volumes, using panel size to really enhance storytelling. For instance, there’s a page where Hilda and her friends are on a playground and the kids are looking for rocks. This excites Hilda, because she loves rocks. The top of the page is standard, with three tall, rectangular panels followed by six identically sized panels. But at the end of the page, the final image is given room to breathe, and thus the actions within it take on extra weight. It’s there that the reader and Hilda both realize the children are getting rocks in order to throw them at birds — something Hilda is quite unhappy about. We can feel it. Pearson’s risks with panel layout pay off nicely.
The characters of Hilda, her mom, and Twig all settle into their final designs in Hilda And The Bird Parade,and these depictions carry forward into the following book. The drawing style reverts to cleaner lines and softened edges. Pearson has hit his stride with this world. The book has the same wonderful color scheme as the previous and maintains similar tonal shifts as well, with warm colors for cozy home scenes and cool colors for outdoor night scenes. The lettering is crisp and strong -- though many of the speech balloons in both this book and, to a lesser degree, the previous, lack punctuation which is occasionally distracting. In general, though, the lettering in The Bird Parade is the strongest of the entire Hilda library.
The most recent Hilda book, Hilda And The Black Hound, features art consistent with the previous release. There’s a slight grit to the inks, similar to the linework in The Midnight Giant, but the character designs and storytelling are far more like The Bird Parade. In general, The Black Hound takes the strongest elements of the art styles from all of the previous Hilda books and combines them into one really wonderful volume of art. Pearson continues to expand his storytelling beyond the claustrophobic grids of The Midnight Giant and seems to have a lot of fun with varied panel borders and layouts throughout the entire book. This is especially rewarding here, as it clearly illustrates the plot point of creatures who move through small bits of unused space behind bookshelves and under couches into a sort of pocket dimension that collects all our lost-in-the-couch-cushion type stuff.
The art is good, but the best part of The Black Hound is the plot. By far the longest Hilda book yet, as well as the most engrossing, the story depicts Hilda as something new altogether: a flawed human. Hilda’s quest in this tale is to impress her mom by earning scout badges, but she is terrible at obtaining them. It’s endearing and fun, particularly as previous books have shown Hilda as fairly exceptional. Here we see the limits of her exceptional nature.
Still, it’s not a Hilda book without an adventure, and the adventure here is entertaining and moving. In fact, it’s the plot of this book that brings to mind an easy comparison for all the Hilda books to the animated movie The Iron Giant. The Hilda books not only share a visual style with the film, but also certain plot features. The Black Hound, for example, is the story of a young kid being raised by a single mom while trying to save a giant, misunderstood creature.
While The Iron Giant has a male protagonist, the female protagonist of the Hilda books is a noteworthy choice. Hilda’s impatient, curious nature is not traditionally associated with female characters, and her relationship with her mother isn’t defined by their shared gender identity (though it helps every single Hilda book to pass the Bechdel test with flying colors). There’s literally no part of these stories that couldn’t be told with a boy in the lead.
So why does it matter that Hilda is a girl and not a boy? For one, too often creators are expected to write main characters that are the same gender as they are. To see a cartoonist willing to spend time in a world primarily populated by people not of his gender, and to make them interesting and nuanced, is a wonderful thing. But to see it in a book where the cartoonist could just as easily have taken the predictable — and possibly more lucrative — route of making the characters male, it’s even better. Pearson doesn’t even resort to using traditionally “girly” colors like pink and purple, but maintains the constant autumnal color palette throughout. Similarly, while the main characters are often white, the human world of Hilda is racially diverse, particularly among the other children she interacts with.
Hilda is a charming young girl who is adventurous, kind, and smart, without ever being unbelievable or annoyingly inspirational in her behavior. She literally never once acts in a way that could be seen as stereotypical of female characters. Each book features a story where Hilda meets new creatures or people, pushes to take risks in order to satisfy her curious nature, and has to tolerate being a little uncomfortable. She makes mistakes and is sometimes a bit of a jerk, but she also learns from these experiences. She’s the kind of character who can inspire good choices in children without ever coming across as preachy or pushy.
This is the kind of character I often loved as a kid, but only found on the pages of books like Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Little House on the Prairie — a girl that could be girly but also adventurous and challenge stereotypes. But we’re a bit past that era of literature, and Hilda is a modern girl who will not be limited by Victorian attitudes.
Girls need to see girls doing things that aren’t traditionally “girly,” but boys could do with the reminder, too. The world needs more books for children where boys cook and clean and girls go on rough-and-tumble adventures.
The Hilda books are not gendered in any meaningful sense of the word, as the stories can appeal to all readers seeking storylines of tolerance, understanding, kindness, and acceptance. Yet somehow the Hilda books avoid even a whiff of condescension. I'm excited to see where the tough adventurer Hilda goes from here.