In Sleepless #2, the new political, fantasy drama published by Image Comics, the central character Poppy receives a letter from her mother; one that causes particular distress. The letter itself isn’t full of grief, in fact elements of it are hopeful and in other circumstances would be reason to celebrate. However, when Sarah Vaughn’s words appear over the top of Leila Del Duca’s images they become a more distressing, upsetting narrative.
It is a prime example of words and images combining to tell the story in a way unique to the comic book format.
As way of background, Poppy’s father, the King, has died and she has been left at the court of Harbeny where her life is in danger and the new King, her uncle, is an unknown element. After an assassination attempt in issue 1, Poppy had held on to the hope that her mother would come to her side. The letter she receives in issue 2 puts an end to that hope.
“My dearest flower. My Poppy. My Pyppenia.
I know what you think as you read this. Why have you only a piece of paper, and not your mother at your side?
I promise you, child, if I could be with you, I would. But the stars have been read, and the queen has made her decision.” (words by Sarah Vaughn)
The letter is, on the surface, a simple apology from Poppy’s mother that she cannot come to Harbeny. But as it unfolds there is a darker undertone. It relates the potential dangers to Poppy and the peace between two cities; it talks about divergent paths which could lead to great pain; and even hints at the possibility that the two may never see each other again.
All of this is there in the letter but Poppy’s physical reaction to it speaks of greater upset, of emotional turmoil more important than the relationship between two countries.
The first panel is a long shot showing the cosy homestead where Poppy has sat down to read the letter. It’s comfortable and warm, a roaring fire heats the room thanks to a wonderful glow in the colouring provided by Alissa Sallah. This colouring is set to change over the coming panels as it moves away from the comforting, homely brown hues to a cold grey and finally the angry yellow and orange of a burning fire.
The second panel moves in closer. It is the same size space but the reader is drawn further into the scene just as Poppy is being drawn into the letter. There is a noticeable shadow on the wall behind her, an ominous warning, just like the one her mother is referring to in the letter. Most notably is that the door, to the right in the previous panel, has disappeared as if Poppy is now trapped in the room with no escape. This is a reflection of the words that are to come. Poppy is indeed trapped, trapped by circumstance in the city of Harbeny.
Moving down the page, to panel 3, and again the image of Poppy is closer. We can now see the disappointed look on her face, a contrast to the happy, cheerful Poppy who populated the earlier pages of the issue. There is a melancholy to the image created by Poppy’s dejected posture and the fact that her surroundings are slowly being removed.
This is taken to the next step in the next panel as all of the background and foreground is removed and replaced by a grey wash reminiscent of a prison wall. Poppy is trapped in the panel and the emotional distress is there on her face for all to see. A tear begins to roll down her cheek
The final long panel on the page portrays Poppy at her most upset. Not only is her facial expression, with her hand held against her face, expressive but the image is in contrast to the words she, and we, are reading at this moment on the page:
“You must be strong. You must trust yourself above all others. You must keep your eyes open.”
Poppy does not appear strong in this image, she is weakened by her distress, she has been made vulnerable and, of course, her eyes are actually closed.
The final two panels of the page portray Poppy’s anger at the words she has just read. She has waited for the arrival of her mother, instead she only receives a letter which upsets her and her reaction is to destroy it, rid herself of the cause of her distress. At this point the paper is a symbol of her hope, the words scrawled upon it have tarnished that hope and the all-encompassing fire is Poppy’s emotional state, destroying the hope she had cherished.
The page is a visual descent into despair for the central character fuelled by formulaic political words that say little but infer much.
The fact that her mother failed to show up was clearly upsetting for Poppy, as can be seen in the harbour scene but it is this scene by the fireside that shows the reader the full affect it has on Poppy. She is a princess in distress and she has become trapped, without hope in her cold, prison like home.
Between them the creators have produced a perfect balance between language and images to produce the biggest punch to the narrative. There is no doubt to Poppy’s emotional state and what the absence of her mother means to her.
This is just one example of the brilliant work on display in Sleepless and it goes without saying that I would recommend this title.
Sleepless is published by Image Comics
Written by Sarah Vaughn
Art by Leila Del Duca
Colours by Alissa Sallah