A Columbus Day Celebration of Circumnavigation

Around the World coverFiction became fact and dreams materialized in the circumnavigation journeys of three adventurers in the late 19th century, and in celebration of Columbus Day, I wanted to share a graphic novel that narrates their journeys.  In Around the World, Matt Phelan spins these three adventurers’ stories into the whirlwind graphic novel, broken into three sections that detail each of the record-setting tales.

First, meet Thomas Stevens, a miner turned wheelman who dreams of becoming the first person to circle the globe while riding a bicycle.  Only a few years after Stevens, female reporter Elizabeth Cochrane, better known by her penname Nellie Bly, sets out to break the fictional circumnavigation record Phileas Fogg set in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days.  Finally, not long after Stevens and Bly, mariner Joshua Slocum begins his adventure to be the first man to sail solo around the globe.

Phelan’s artwork in Around the World is subtly gorgeous, full of pretty greens, blues, oranges, and greys.  In addition to the colors, the flowing style works especially well for ocean scenes and for expressing motion.  That said, I often found Phelan’s pages of un-narrated pictures a bit confusing.  In particular, the beginning of each story tends to be hard to understand; then, as the story progresses, the plot becomes clearer.

Nevertheless, I think the unique true stories and beautiful artwork make up for any storytelling deficiencies.  Around the World is a worthwhile read, especially for those who love one-of-a-kind adventure stories and want to commemorate Columbus Day with a little historical dabbling.

Happy Columbus Day!

arrietty pic


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.

arrietty pic



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.