October 30, 2014
(++++) MAGICS AND MARVELS
The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel, Volumes 1 and 2. By Neil Gaiman. Adapted by P. Craig Russell. Illustrations by Kevin Nowlan, P. Craig Russell, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, Stephen B. Scott and David Lafuente. Harper. $19.99 each.
Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop Tales. By Bruce Coville. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $34.99.
Neil Gaiman’s strange and wonderful The Graveyard Book (2008) has spawned a strange and differently wonderful graphic-novel adaptation that incorporates Gaiman’s words, abridged and modified by P. Craig Russell to fit the graphic-novel format, and features illustrations by Russell and seven other first-rate artists. Published as a two-volume hardcover set, this adaptation is costly and is clearly intended to stay on bookshelves for a long time to come – and deserves to. Gaiman’s story of a boy whose entire family is assassinated by a mysterious man named Jack, and who flees the scene of butchery to seek and improbably find solace amid the ghosts in a nearby graveyard, is a tale of old-fashioned wonder, a creepy, thought-provoking, occasionally amusing canvas peopled by people long dead and by creatures that are people-shaped but are really something else. The marvelous thing about Russell’s adaptation is how clearly it hews to Gaiman’s story while enriching it through illustrations that effectively highlight the tale’s visual underpinnings. There are little touches of strictly visual humor here and there: for example, in Russell’s illustrations of the chapter in which the boy, named Nobody Owens by the denizens of the graveyard, meets a girl his own age, Scarlett is seen sitting on a bench, reading – and what she is reading is Life magazine. The wry humor of Gaiman’s original is here, too, as in his giving ghouls such names as the Duke of Westminster, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Emperor of China, and the 33rd President of the United States; and in the wonderfully fairy-tale-like chapter called “Danse Macabre” (illustrated by Jill Thompson), in which the living and dead temporarily, joyfully and mysteriously interact. The frights are present as well: in the murder scene of the opening chapter (illustrated by Kevin Nowlan entirely in dark colors, except for the bright red blood); in the chapter with the ghouls (illustrated by Tony Harris and Scott Hampton), showing the bizarre, almost Lovecraftian city of Ghûlheim; and in the cruelties of the purely human world, especially in “The Witch’s Headstone” (illustrated by Galen Showman) and “Nobody Owens’ School Days” (illustrated by David Lafuente).
The multi-artist approach does have some weaknesses, as the appearances of Bod’s guardian, Silas, of the ghost witch, Liza, and of Bod himself, all change disconcertingly from time to time – a particular issue when it comes to the supernatural characters, since one of Gaiman’s points is that for those in a graveyard, nothing will ever change again (one reason the dead agree to help raise Bod to adulthood). A notable example of this issue occurs in the first volume, in the final panel of the chapter that ends on page 108 and the splash panel of the chapter starting on the opposite page, 109: Bod abruptly changes from an anime-inspired, large-eyed, wide-mouthed youth with an almost feminine appearance to a much more realistic-looking boy of the same age. It is also worth pointing out that some notable aspects of Gaiman’s story, such as the death of Miss Lupescu, have less impact in the graphic novel than in the original. These, however, are minor matters in the overall excellence of the visual presentation. The adaptation does not try to gloss over the few weaknesses of the original, such as the eventual explanation for the murder of Bod’s family – a reason that readers could not have anticipated and that comes so far out of nowhere that it seems to have been grafted onto an otherwise taut and well-told tale. The fact is that The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel enhances Gaiman’s novel in some ways even though it is somewhat less effective in others, inevitably playing up some points and playing down others because of the need to compress and illustrate what happens. These are the pleasures and perils of any adaptation to graphic-novel form – and in this case, the resulting work is a masterly one that, for those willing to spend $40 for it, will be a highly welcome addition to a collection of tales of the weird and wonderful.
The Magic Shop books by Bruce Coville are considerably milder and, by design, a great deal more amusing than The Graveyard Book, but they are just as delightful in their own way as Gaiman’s novel is in its. Paperbacks of all five are now available in a slipcase edition quite suitable for gift-giving or simply for rediscovering these delightfully offbeat fables – or discovering them for the first time. They are The Monster’s Ring (1982, revised 2002); Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (1991); Jennifer Murdley’s Toad (1992); The Skull of Truth (1997); and Juliet Dove, Queen of Love (2003). The connective tissue among the books is one of those quintessential fairy-tale devices: a magic shop that really is magic and really does contain magical objects, but that can only be found when people really need to find it – or it really needs to find them. The proprietor is, of course, enigmatic if not downright spooky, and his name is Mr. Elives (pronounced “mystery lives” – what else?). In all the books, the kids who visit the shop get just what they have coming to them, whether they know it or not; in fact, they do not know it at first but come to know it eventually – whatever “it” may be. In the first book, Russell Crannaker, victim of bullies at school and at home, finds himself bullied (so he thinks) into buying a peculiar green ring that can give him a way to stop bullies forever – if he dares to take it. The shortest of the books, The Monster’s Ring was updated by Coville in 2002 to fit more neatly with the later ones, notably by the author’s addition to it of two talking rats that he had not actually introduced until the third book, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. The second of the Magic Shop books is the best known: Jeremy gets a strange egg from the magic shop, soon discovers that it hatches into a creature with which not even his father, a veterinarian, could possibly be familiar, and learns as the dragon grows just how much he and it need each other. In the third book, Jennifer, who has always longed to be pretty, somehow leaves the magic shop with an especially ugly toad that, however, can talk – and that eventually helps her confront her fears and discover that there is more than one way to have a beautiful life. The skull in the fourth book gets into the hands of habitual liar Charlie Eggleston, who discovers that it lets him say only the truth, no matter how painful that may be for him and those around him. In this book, Coville produces the very apt and thoughtful statement, “You can have truth, or you can have mercy. …Generally you cannot expect both.” Finally, Coville has shy Juliet Dove be given a magic-shop amulet that makes her irresistible to everyone she meets – and that she only begins to understand when Jennifer Murdley’s rats show up to help her figure out what is going on and why. The biggest problem with the Magic Shop books, as young readers will likely realize after reading them, is that there aren’t any more – Coville has since moved on to other topics, albeit ones with similar mixtures of silliness and depth. The complete Magic Shop set is no bargain – bought individually, the paperbacks would cost $34.95 – but families that do not already have the books should certainly consider getting them this way, neatly slipcased and presented with all the elegance they deserve (that is, some, but not too much). Individually and together, they are delightful to read – and more thought-provoking than their continual bouts of humor make they seem at first to be.