The sky is gray, and the day is drab. Only brief spots of colorful red vary the gloomy grayness and the washed out blue sky that occasionally peeks through the fog and clouds. While this description could easily be of the late autumn days I experienced this week, it actually depicts the scenes of Matt Phelan’s most recent book Snow White: A Graphic Novel.
Although the book begins in 1918, it is set primarily during the 1920s and ‘30s in New York City. Phelan uses loose watercolor illustrations, primarily grayscale hues, to tell his modernized version of the fairy tale Snow White. As with Phelan’s other stories, the art is beautiful, and I enjoy his style and portrayal of characters and facial expression. This graphic novel’s creative combination of Phelan’s art, early 20th century America, the big city, and the timeworn fairy tale of Snow White produce an interesting result.
Snow White is a familiar tale to most people, and Phelan seems to rely on this familiarity, for his story contains few words and no narration besides chapter titles. To someone unfamiliar with the classic tale of an evil stepmother trying to kill her beautiful stepdaughter and the seven dwarves who help the daughter, Phelan’s story may be quite confusing. Even though I have read and watched several versions of Snow White, parts of Phelan’s book were unclear, such as Phelan’s version of the magic mirror that the stepmother consults. The parts that I did not understand were minor, however, and the story still made sense as a whole.
In his retelling of a fairy tale in which color plays a significant role, particularly in the protagonist’s name, Matt Phelan cleverly integrates his color into the illustrations so that it complements the story. Phelan’s illustrations are predominately shades of white, gray, and sepia. However, occasional accents of red emphasize important parts or characters in the story, such as Snow White, the apple, and the evil stepmother. Then, during the denouement, Phelan introduces subtle, colorful pastels to mark how the mood of the story changes.
Snow White: A Graphic Novel is a creative concept, and Matt Phelan’s illustrations are excellent. Yet, in spite of how artistically impressive the book is, it has little else to offer. Besides the unique setting, the story does not introduce enough new twists to the original story to be exceptional or exciting. For those seeking a clever fairy tale retelling that displays something novel, Phelan’s book is not the answer. Nevertheless, for a jaunt through a familiar story in a new guise along pages full of Phelan’s beautiful and quirky artwork, Snow White will most likely prove enjoyable.