Have a weakness for quest narratives? Enjoy a good bildungsroman? Like to learn a super hero’s origins? You can satisfy all three cravings in Green Monk: Blood of the Martyrs, by Brandon Dayton. This historical-fiction-meets-fantasy tale set in 15th-century Russia follows the life of Alexey, a boy surrendered at birth to a monastery. However, Dayton manages to upend the expected messianic story line to leave his readers contemplating the continuum between peace and violence.
As many superhero and savior stories begin, this tale opens with a mother offering her child up to the care of others with her dying breath. The monks are advanced in their years and characteristically unaware of how to care for a child. Alexey flourishes under their watch, learning about their order and how to read, weave baskets, and treat people and animals with kindness. In his first journey to a nearby village, Alexey sees local boys beating a deer, and he frees the animal, returning to fight with them. The monks are disappointed in his choice of violence, reminding him that their order was founded in blood and that they have therefore set out to live a life of pacifism. After failing this first trial, Alexey experiences his first vision, in which he is armed with a sword, fighting a demon, but is mortally wounded when he heeds the reproach of his father monk. As the story continues, Alexey again must choose between pacifism and action. With each conflict, Alexey experiences another vision and is further challenged to choose between the peace of the brotherhood and the way of the sword. He desperately tries to honor his upbringing, but even choosing a harmless blade of grass as a weapon turns into an opportunity to kill those who are murdering his brothers. There is no clear path ahead, and we leave Alexey shut outside the walls of the monastery, ordered to make penance for the lives he took in saving the lives of others.
This story heavily emphasizes the conflict between keeping peace at the cost of ignoring justice. The monks call for inaction, citing a desire to live holy, blameless lives. Yet, in his visions, the Holy Mother calls Alexey to defend the pitiful and the weak and to choose a weapon to cut down her enemies. Can Alexey exist somewhere on the continuum between pacifism and militarism, or must he choose only one of two options—inaction or action, black or white, right or wrong? By allowing the weapon from his vision to carry into the real world, Dayton suggests that there might be rifts in reality and shades of grey in justice. As the Scripture states, there is a time for love… but there is also a time for war.
The majority of the story progresses without dialogue, relying on the artwork to follow Alexey’s coming of age. Dayton zooms in and out on the action, intensifying the action pane by pane only to interrupt with a snapshot of still life, from bird’s eye views of the buildings to a close up of a spilling wine cup. Alexey’s dream sequences function in the same style, varying between action and still shots, and Dayton offers no warning to the reader of when the story has shifted from reality to dream. These pauses in the action serve as moments of reflection—what is the best path?
Green Monk is rated for Teens, and this seems to be an accurate assessment of audience. While younger teens may not be as attuned to the nuances of the moral conflict, the book is still a great coming-of-age story about a monk who can cut down trees and people with a blade of grass. It merits purchase not only for fascinating assessment of pacifism but also for its unique setting in medieval Russia and its blend of folklore and religion. It also is set up for a continuing series if Image should decide to pick it up, and I certainly hope they do!
Green Monk: Blood of the Martyrs, Vol. 1
By Brandon Dayton
Image Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: T