You ever just randomly remember books you used to love when you were a kid, and upon remembering said book, felt the urge to reread it, even if it wouldn’t likely measure up to your now-higher standards? That recently happened with me and one Legend of Memo the Hierophant. I remembered reading it as a kid, I remember liking it as a kid, so I decided to re-read it. And how can you resist a cover like this:
That’s Memo there, front and center, him with the kite. You gotta love how he looks all cute and cartoony – he resembles Horton in cosplay somewhat – and contrasts with the squalid city scenery without looking too out-of-place. Another nice touch is the drinking snake wrapped around the parking meter, who sadly doesn’t actually appear in the book. I also like the use of dull yellows and dank blues, perfectly complimenting the slummy backdrop.
The Legend of Memo the Hierophant is the result of almost twenty years work between Allan Cameron and Norman Catherine, two South African artists. Their artistic background – look at Catherine’s work, for example, it’s great – means that Memo is more a visual story than a verbal one. It is classified as a graphic novel, but it isn’t a comic. It’s a prose story that uses its illustrations just as much as –if not more than – the words.
And what illustrations!The pictures in this book are utterly beautiful. The story is set in the dystopian city of Mutantis, swarming with biomechanical anthropomorphic animals, militant “Warhogs”, and other strange beings, and the pictures, with colouring that is eye-catching while highlighting Mutantis’ sleaze, bring the setting to life. There is a mixture of Blade Runner, African art, blacklight and even more orthodox cartoon animals, and the result is a unique aesthetic.
There is a wild variety of animals to be found here, from the cartoony Memo to the more sinister-looking Thorax the robot bug, and they all fit into the setting. Memo is a big eyed elephant, and there’s a female elephant with big Minnie Mouse eyelashes, but they belong in the same world as the terrifying robot insects.
Memo believes himself to be the last elephant of Mutantis (considering the variety of what we see living there, I bet a lot of creatures are the last of their kinds too), but then meets another, Rosetta. From her, he learns about the ancient order of the Hierophants and their kite-flying ways. Yep, you read that right. Kites. They fly kites. Nemo flies a kite himself and magically receives a glowing seed, which is supposed to be from “The Tree of Dreams” (that thing from The Fountain?) and means that he has been chosen to be a Hierophant himself. In order to prove himself, he must go to the fortress of Mutantis’ evil ruler, Gorgon, and fly his kite there.
While the art and setting for Memo is certainly original, I hesitate in saying the story is. It’s a fairly typical “defeat the evil overlord and restore order” thing. It reminds me of Star Wars, or even that old SatAM Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon, even if this book was started way before that show. There isn’t really that much explanation as to what the Hierophants are and what they do; the most Rosetta says is that they ‘show or reveal sacred things’. Well, so do archaeologists, and they don’t need kites either.
Memo is quite likeable and sympathetic in that he feels he doesn’t belong in his world and doesn’t know where he comes from, but I can’t really say much else about him as a character. He becomes a Hierophant at the end, but stays the same curious, cuddly fellow he was in the beginning. When Rosetta is introduced in the story, she is described as ‘beautiful’ and having ‘the most wonderful voice that Memo ever heard’ so you’d think there’d be a romantic subplot between them, especially since they both belong to a dying race. Nope. They’re pretty much just friends, and she really just acts as sidekick and exposition.
As for the non-elephant characters, I did like Fender, a crocodile who is sorta the Han Solo to Memo’s Luke Skywalker. He has one of the better designs of the story, looking a cross between Vector from the Sonic games, and SCP-682. He gets some good moments too, like when he attacks a Warhog capturing Memo.
I don’t have much praise for Dr. Orbit Quark the chameleon though. He’s really the only animal that seems out-of-place. The cartoon stereotype of the eccentric professor who botches his inventions – he’s even called eccentric by Rosetta – is a bit too silly for this story’s tone. With his name and appearance, Quark should be a mascot for a sugary cereal rather than an aid for someone’s journey of self-discovery.
The villains fare better. Gorgon does come across as your general Evil Overlord ™ but his design and the power he holds do make him entertaining whenever he shows up. It is a shame though, that he is defeated rather quickly, by Memo’s kite no less. The book says he wiped out the Hierophants; if one kite from one Hierophant could kill him, how could he stand up to several? More threatening is a “Snape” (not the Harry Potter dude fangirls love, he’s a snake-ape hybrid apparently) called Pythonomous and his spider sidekick Spartacus. Pyth’s character design – an ape with purple and green scales and a bowler-hat-and-bow-tie ensemble – is one of the more striking of the book, and he has a hunting flying stingray too. And at one point he slices Thorax, a robot bug, in two. He’s a badass.
It is pretty easy to see where the plot is going; of course Memo’s going to be a Hierophant, of course Gorgon is going to get defeated. Yet I did keep reading just to see more of Mutantis’ grimy corners, to see what the Warhogs and the Snapes were going to do next. Though I knew elements like power kites and robot bugs were silly, I liked the world the book presented. I actually want to see this story made into a movie (could even work as a video game, really) with the visuals still intact. Then again, saying a prose story reads like a movie is usually a criticism (see The Da Vinci Code), but the story serves the marvellous illustrations so what the hey.
There are a few niggles here and there – well, I guess it is a kids’ story, really – but Memo is worth owning for the artwork alone, and was a decent piece of nostalgia.