Snow White in Gray

snow-white-coverThe 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.

snow-white-illustrationIn 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.

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-ARRIETTY-

Interplanetary Adventures

If you find a device with a red button in a meteoroid crater, don’t push the button…    unless you want to be whisked off your feet into another world.

Far from HomeAfter Zita pushes the aforementioned button to annoy her timid friend Joseph, Joseph is kidnapped and taken to another planet by an evil bounty hunter.  Remorseful Zita instantly pushes the button again to follow and rescue her friend.  Where she lands turns out to be a planet of robots and aliens, but there’s no time for sightseeing, for Zita must locate and save Joseph before an asteroid hits in three days.  Soon, through her kind behavior, Zita has rounded up a ragtag band of trusty, but not necessarily reliable, friends.  The newfound help includes a crafty human named Piper, a giant Mouse who communicates with a printing device on his collar, a blustering and belligerent battle orb named One, the rusty robot Randy, and a soft-hearted alien named Strong-Strong.

Author and illustrator Ben Hatke vivifies the world and characters of Zita the Spacegirl with colorful, cartoonlike pictures that make the story fun.  In addition, he smoothly transitions from panel to panel, making this children’s graphic novel easy to follow and enjoy.

Though the book is primarily an entertaining adventure story, the bravery and kindness which Zita exhibits fill the story with wholesomeness.  Much like in fairy tales where a compassionate and sweet-natured girl, such as Cinderella, wins friendship from animals and humans by her kindness, charity, and courage, so Zita wins unexpected friends through her own caring acts.

Zita the Spacegirl: Far from Home is a story that will delight young audiences and refresh older ones.  At times the story and characters are predictable, but Ben Hatke has a few surprises up his sleeve as the plot unfolds, and he introduces enough twists to make the protagonists creative and likeable.  Zita the Spacegirl: Far from Home is the first installment in the Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, and I’m curious to see where Hatke goes with the sequels.

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-ARRIETTY-

Two Tales of a City and a Storm

Every natural disaster leaves behind stories of misery, of courage, of cowardice, and of perseverance, and Hurricane Katrina is no exception.  Eleven years ago, the huge hurricane swept the Gulf Coast, leaving 2,000 people dead and thousands homeless, particularly in flooded New Orleans.  It was a time of great trial, but the adversity led to many great and many small acts of heroism.

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

Drowned CityDrowned City by Don Brown is a graphic novel which details the emergence of a small storm near Africa that soon whirls into a tropical storm, then a Category 5 hurricane.  When Katrina hits low-lying New Orleans, the city is only partly evacuated and is unprepared for the water that breaks the levees and floods the city.  During the flooding, people are stranded on rooftops and crowded in the Superdome.  As the water recedes, aid to the city is slow and disorganized, and the crowded conditions in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome become squalid.

In Drowned City, author and illustrator Don Brown stitches together facts and personal accounts of what New Orleans was like after Katrina hit.  Brown researched his book well, and his book provides a concise narrative about Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans.  However, the subject matter of the story is inherently dismal, and Drowned City focuses more on the suffering citizens and incompetent relief organizations than it does on the heroes who helped those in need or the lessons people learned.  Don Brown did an excellent job of writing and illustrating Drowned City, but the content and focus make it far from uplifting.  Perhaps the situation was as dismal as Brown depicts it, but I wonder if, in the search for historical accuracy and realism, Don Brown missed many of the stories of hope, of kindness, and of lessons learned.

Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival

Two Bobbies

An example of a story that illustrates hope and kindness is the picture book Two Bobbies.  It is an account of two animals Katrina left stranded, animals who were lost like so many pets during the evacuation of New Orleans.  Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery and illustrated by Jean Cassels narrates the true story of how the dog and cat friends Bobbi and Bob Cat survived Katrina by sticking together and how they found a new home.  Well-written and -illustrated, Two Bobbies sweetly captures the pair’s story and friendship.

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-ARRIETTY-

Calamity Jack

Calamity Jack Cover“I think of myself as a criminal mastermind…with an unfortunate amount of bad luck,” admits Jack (4).  And with these words, Shannon and Dean Hale launch their latest graphic novel, Calamity Jack, in which Jack from Rapunzel’s Revenge returns – this time starring in his own tale.

Calamity Jack is set in Shyport, a metropolis miles away from the western wilds of Gothel’s Reach where Jack and Rapunzel first met.  Shyport is populated by townspeople and thugs, as well as fantastical creatures like brownies, giants, Jabberwocks, and Bandersnatches (a creative nod to Lewis Carroll).  And then there’s Jack, who realizes at the early age of two that his calling is thievery.  Jack also discovers this depressing equation about himself:  Jack + Great Plan = Unforeseen (Usually Calamitous) Results.  Not disheartened, Jack doesn’t let bad outcomes squelch his ambitions.  As a result, he accidentally demolishes his mother’s bakery, angers a giant, and has to leave Shyport in a hurry.  Out west, as told in Rapunzel’s Revenge, Jack meets and befriends Rapunzel and helps her overthrow the witch Gothel.  Jack then returns home with Rapunzel to rebuild his mother’s bakery.  All’s not well at home, though.  Shyport is under attack from sizeable and ferocious Ant People, and Jack’s enemy Blunderboar is now in control of the city as head of a police force of giants.  It’s up to Jack, Rapunzel, a pixie named Prudence, and the newspaperman Frederick Sparksmith the Third to uncover the truth about what is happening in Shyport and save the city.

CollageAs the plot unfolds, Jack struggles with the consequences of his larcenous past.  Jack had planned for the act of thievery which landed him in his present trouble to be his final heist and to enable him to restore his mother’s bakery.  Instead, Jack’s “ends-justifies-means” methodology results in the obliteration of the bakery and disaster for himself, his family, and his city.  Perhaps the authors intend this for reasons beyond the storyline.  Perhaps they want Calamity Jack to show the problems of pragmatism and the unforeseen consequences that stealing can have – even after the thief has reformed.  In fact, though not as elegantly executed as “A Retrieved Reformation” by O. Henry, Calamity Jack contains similar valuable insights.

In addition to these direct ramifications of his thieving, Jack also struggles with how his past will affect his future, even though he has reformed.  If Rapunzel discovers he used to be just like the bad guys she’s always defeating, will it destroy their friendship?

Once again, Shannon and Dean Hale have woven a story worth reading, and Nathan Hale has brought it to life with his art.  Characters, setting, story, and themes all combine to make Calamity Jack a fun adventure and an excellent sequel to Rapunzel’s Revenge.

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-ARRIETTY-

Bluffton

Buster KeatonWhen I hear the name Buster Keaton, images of black and white silent films spring to mind.  Or at least, they used to.  Now, however, I think more of a little boy, the son of vaudeville performers, and a small town in Michigan called Bluffton.  This new picture is due to my reading Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan.  In a historical fiction graphic novel of many pictures and few words, Matt Phelan tells the story of how Henry, a local at Bluffton, Michigan, becomes friends with the young Buster Keaton and grows up.

One summer, a zebra, an elephant, and a group of vaudeville performers take up residence in the quiet, lakeside town of Bluffton.  To wide-eyed Henry this looks to be quite a summer, especially after he strikes up a friendship with one of the vaudeville children, Buster Keaton.  Baseball, pranks, fishing, and swimming quickly while away the summer.  Listening to Buster’s accounts of vaudeville life and watching Buster’s incredible stunts, Henry wants to learn to perform and dabbles in juggling.  When summer ends, the performing troupe leaves, and Henry returns to the more mundane world of school and work.  Finally, though, summer and the vaudeville troupe and Buster come again, and the second summer passes much like the first.  Over the course of several summers, however, Henry changes.  His admiration for Buster’s skills is easily evident, and he struggles to imitate his friend.  Watching how Buster’s father makes Buster walk in his footsteps leads Henry to presume that his own father will want him to run the family store when he grows up.  Henry struggles with what his future career will be.  In the end, however, Henry’s father explains to Henry that he wants Henry to choose a career that will make him happy and that he doesn’t expect Henry to be a storeowner if that isn’t what he wants.

In addition to Bluffton’s story, the novel also contains delightful watercolor illustrations.  Soft hues, quirky expressions, and quiet scenes all work together to tell the story and also grant Bluffton a whimsical tone that makes it pleasant and easy to read.

Matt Phelan

Matt Phelan

Bluffton compares the childhoods, families, and lives of Buster Keaton – who became world famous when he grew up – and Henry – an unremarkable small town boy.  In the end, one comes away with the impression that Henry has a happier life than Buster Keaton, despite all of Keaton’s fame.  Perhaps Phelan is reminding readers that fame is not what makes people happy and that a caring father and a happy family are much more important.