The Ring of Saturn | by Kaiju | Chromatic Press – “Sometimes it is not about forcing something to work… it is about simply learning to absorb what is beautiful.” These words come from the mouth of English composer Gustav Holst—not the actual historical man, perhaps, but a compelling portrait indeed as envisioned by cartoonist Kate Rhodes and animator Jennifer Xu, credited here collectively as “Kaiju.”
Set during Holst’s tenure as director of music at West London’s St. Paul’s Girls’ School during the First World War, Kaiju’s short comic “The Ring of Saturn” tells the story of Miriam Frayne, a promising young pianist studying with Holst at St. Paul’s. After performing a solo piano arrangement of Holst’s “Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age” (part of his famous orchestral suite, The Planets, which Holst is in the process of orchestrating over the course of the comic), Miriam is approached by a young astronomer, Rasim Rahal, who expresses his appreciation of her performance. Visibly distraught, Miriam forces a polite response and flees as quickly as possible.
Unhappy with her own playing, and doubtful of her ability to do justice to “Saturn,” Miriam begs Holst to be allowed to play something more “appropriate,” and it soon becomes clear what that means to her. Young and filled with the verve of nationalist pride, Miriam is vastly more comfortable with the decidedly uplifting character of Holst’s “Jupiter” (“The Bringer of Jollity”) than she is with the haunting ambiguity of “Saturn.” It is only when wartime tragedy hits close to home that Miriam finds herself beginning to understand what is beautiful and even necessary about “Saturn’s” relentless uncertainty.
It is admittedly difficult to discuss a short comic like The Ring of Saturn without giving away its entire plot, but rest assured that any developments revealed here are not remotely the point. Yes, you may assume that Miriam’s wartime tragedy involves the death of someone close to her (and you’ll know who that is likely to be within the comic’s first twenty pages), but these specifics are important only on the surface. Even Rahal, who seems perfectly poised to be Miriam’s love interest, is ultimately significant only for the ways in which his greater life experience helps to shatter Miriam’s patriotic innocence.
Kaiju’s visual storytelling is stunning—expressive and visceral, particularly towards the end of the comic, where the crux of Miriam’s emotional journey plays out over the course of eleven dialogue-free pages. This sequence, enhanced only by a few crucial sound-effects, is as beautifully envisioned as the best classic shoujo manga, and similarly well-executed. If these were the only eleven pages in the entire comic, they could stand alone as an eloquent expression of one young musician’s moment of truth. That’s how powerful they are.
Enamoring artwork aside, it would be remiss to minimize this comic’s most brilliant element, which is its grounding in the real-life history of Gustav Holst and his music. Though some historical details may be altered for the sake of the story (Holst’s original arrangements were for two pianos, not one, for instance), Holst’s essence remains intact. That he valued himself more as a teacher than as a composer is felt keenly here, and to my mind, deepens the reading of his musical output as much as it does the story at hand. Like many children of musical households in the 20th century, I was brought up on The Planets, and though I rather thoughtlessly abandoned them in later years in favor of the more overtly complex works of composers like Prokofiev and Stravinsky, my appreciation of them in context of Holst’s commitment to teaching and the beginning of World War I has been decidedly enhanced by this comic. Holst notably approached each planet not from an astronomical viewpoint, but an astrological one—specifically in terms of its emotional and psychological associations rather than its mythological namesake—an approach that works exceptionally well as the premise for a character-driven comic.
But perhaps most significantly, what Kaiju has proven here is that it really is possible to craft a wholly satisfying, emotionally resonant comic in under 100 pages—and to do it without resorting to wordy exposition, over-crowded panels, or excessive dialogue. The Ring of Saturn is an elegantly crafted comic that should draw attention not only to its talented, artistically mature creative team, but also to Sparkler Monthly and Chromatic Press’ output as a whole. This is exactly the kind of comic we need more of.