The Backstagers, in a word, sparkles.
First off, accolades. This inclusive comic, featuring an ensemble cast across the racial and LGBTQ spectrums, was honored last month at the inaugural Prism Awards celebrating LGBTQ comics. Writer James Tynion IV and artist Rian Sygh were named in the presentation of the award for Best Single Issue from a Mainstream Publisher for the series’ first issue. Walter Baiamonte and Jim Campbell round out the creative team as colorist and letterer, respectively.
The comic is suitable for all ages, but definitely skews young, opening with a fart joke and maintaining a charming, cartoony art aesthetic throughout. Our guide into the world is Jory, a new transfer into an all-boy’s school who tries to find his niche in the social order by joining drama club. *cue spot lights and glitter* Unfortunately, this is a bust until he meets the eponymous backstagers, the crew of misfits in charge of all the technical nuts and bolts of the theater. They’re also hiding a secret. Their backstage hangout contains a portal to a magical labyrinth that holds all the props, paints, and building supplies a play could need, but at the risk of getting lost in the shifting corridors and encountering bizarre creatures like tool mice and echo spiders. The other leading crew members are the unrepentant flirt Hunter (pictured above), tech nerd Beckett, no-nonsense Aziz, and I-can’t-believe-they-let-this-smol-child-into-a-dangerous-magicland Sasha.
The plot is loaded with magic and mystery, tension builds with a menacing phantasm that lurks from the end of the very first issue, but the story is first and foremost inhabited by emotion – love and anger and innocent, naive joy. The Backstagers offers a template for a healthy masculinity, one willing to engage with and express feeling. The characters explore their insecurities and fears, admit when they’ve made mistakes, and let crushes get the better of their judgment. In one notable scene, a moment of rage (literally exploding out behind other panels and turning a character’s eyes red) leads smoothly into reconciliation and the realization that he’s not facing his fears alone. The characters are allowed to cry and show their vulnerability, and it knits them closer together. As a crew and as individuals, they are as brave and loyal as you can hope heroes to be.
Sygh’s art emphasizes exaggerated features and is filled with flourishes. Faces distort with emotion; roses blossom with infatuation; menacing monsters morph into bouncy cuddlebugs. The effect is lighthearted and whimsical, bringing to life the magical, vibrant world of the theater and those dedicated to it. Baiamonte’s colors work to enhance these exaggerations. Characters are backdropped in colors and effects that reflect their mood, while the backstage world, even at its most threatening, is coated in a sense of magic and mystery.
The most disappointing thing about The Backstagers is that I didn’t realize there was going to be more than one volume. While each of the lead characters get their own miniature character arcs, there isn’t enough time for them all to breathe and fully develop. And reaching the end only to be left dangling over a cliff left me grumbling and considering buying the rest of the run in digital before the second volume finally drops next year. Regardless, Tynion’s story is heartfelt, overflowing with warmth, and a beautiful reminder of the spectrum of humanity.