“Ella Upgraded” #1 is a well-wrought all-ages tale about Ella, a young girl whose brother retrofits her with parts from her deceased father’s handheld game console after a catastrophic accident.
The result? A superhero in the making. Kinda.
Story: Dan Whitehead
Art: P. R. Dedelis
Colors: Abby Bulmer
Letters: Jim Campbell
Publisher: Zebra Comics
“Ella Upgraded” #1 strikes that fine balance between comics for kids and adults that’s absent from a lot of mainstream comics publishing right now. Whitehead crafts an engaging and believable protagonist in Ella, whose enthusiasm for her newfound powers and attitude toward her brother doesn’t mask her sweet nature or her natural grief.
Whitehead and Dedelis take a few pages to establish both Ella and her brother and the events leading up to Ella’s “upgrade”: her brother’s meeting, Ella’s obsession with video games and her dad’s old handheld, the brother-sister rapport and even Ella’s boredom are all linked in quick succession, but the pacing feels natural. There isn’t too much exposition or dialogue to bloat the experience, save a repeated mention of “Mom and Dad …” that could be cut, and the effect is immediate engagement. Whitehead and Dedelis aren’t afraid to mix this tenderness with humor, either – the whole concept of installing parts from a GameBoy into a little girl to help her walk again is both touching and hilarious, and the montage of her kicking everything in the house is a funny pop after the heaviness of the previous pages. Ella’s dialogue feels natural and kid-like, and her enthusiasm and eagerness to be a superhero is tempered in the right moments by her rashness and clumsiness. She’s neither hapless nor flawless, and that balance makes her engaging and believable.
Dedelis’s art is engaging and cartoonish without erring on the side of goofiness. Ella’s pigtails, hoodie and ripped jeans all speak to the tomboyish, blase gamer aesthetic she projects, but the posters decorating her room and her taste in games show she’s pretty into the pulp side of things. She’s not headshotting dudes – she likes schlock, she’s still a kid, and she’s not afraid to be enthusiastic about it. Similarly, her superhero costume, picked out amusingly by Whitehead piece by piece, shows how her superhero ideals are largely untarnished by any sort of cynicism. Dedelis’s faces are expressive, and Ella’s sadness is depicted with just as much authenticity as her joy. Like Whitehead, Dedelis balances the humor and heartbreak well, and the book moves along at a good pace without breaking mood or tension.
Bulmer picks a varied color palette – there’s the sinister gloom of the street right before Ella’s accident, and some nice red and orange gradient backgrounds when Ella punches the purse snatcher where it counts. The posters on Ella’s walls and the game cartridges pop believably thanks to Bulmer picking out Dedelis’s details, and her costume is a slick black that’s both cool and charming, given the written context. Campbell chooses a narrow font with peaky, irregular vowels and fat little balloons to keep the bubbly effect minimal, but still present. We’re not going full-on children’s book here, but that trace of innocence that Ella keeps close is represented in the lettering to help get at that overall tone.
“Ella Upgraded” #1 is a lot of fun, and it’d be even more fun for parents and kids to read together. It’s wish fulfillment done in a more sophisticated way, with an authentic protagonist whose bravery and enthusiasm are infectious. With this issue’s cliffhanger, we’ll have to wait and see how Ella handles her first real superhero assignment.
The Verdict: 9/10 – “Ella Upgraded” #1 is a delightful tale for kids and parents alike, with solid craft from a well-balanced creative team.