August 13, 2015
(++++) THE WIDE RANGE OF GRAPHIC NOVELS
Sunny Side Up. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Prison Island: A Graphic Memoir. By Colleen Frakes. Zest Books. $16.99.
Space Dumplins. By Craig Thompson. Color by Dave Stewart. Graphix/Scholastic. $14.99.
Teen Boat! 2: The Race for Boatlantis. By Dave Roman and John Green. Clarion. $14.99.
Anyone who doubts that graphic novels have outgrown their infancy and become an art form in their own right need only consider the exceptionally different topics, approaches and illustrations of these recent releases to gain new perspective on the form. The intriguing ways in which writers and artists reimagine comic books and traditional novels, using elements of both in individual and creative ways, mean that readers can pick up a graphic novel just as they would a traditional work of fiction – to discover topics light or heavy, amusing or intense, serious or sunny. Sunny Side Up, for example, is anything but a “sunny” story despite its title and the fact that its central character is a girl named Sunny Lewin. The sister-and-brother team of Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm is best known for the Babymouse romps, small-size graphic novels with some intriguing creative elements (notably the way Babymouse interacts with the books’ narrator). But Sunny Side Up tackles more-serious material, and does so in a way that only gradually pulls the reader into the important part of story. On the surface, it is the tale of a preteen who is unwillingly packed off to Florida for a summer vacation with her grandfather in Florida. Why? That is a minor mystery that, during the book, becomes a major one. Initially, though, the story is about Sunny’s attempts to get used to her grandfather’s retirement community and the very, very old people who live there and do strange-to-Sunny things all the time (such as keeping cats, despite that being against the rules, and then needing Sunny’s help when the cats wander away). Sunny thinks of Florida as the location of the fun of Disney World, but to her grandfather, the state is a warm, slow-paced retirement destination where going to the post office or to a buffet restaurant for an early-bird special is a big deal. Sunny tolerates all the old people and all the inconveniences of retirement life as best she can, and is buoyed by meeting a comic-book-obsessed boy named Buzz, whose father is a groundskeeper at the retirement community. Together Sunny and Buzz read and discuss comics together and have small adventures all their own, involving found golf balls, those missing cats, and an alligator named Big Al. But secrets disturb Sunny’s thinking and her sleep – first about her grandfather’s continued cigarette smoking and lying about it, then about the things her older brother, Dale, has been doing. Slowly, the troubling matters become more and more overwhelming to Sunny, and finally she learns just why she was sent to Florida for the summer: so her parents could try to get help for Dale without Sunny being there to witness a difficult time that is sure to involve a drug intervention and perhaps more. Eventually Sunny and her grandfather really do become pals – and she helps him throw out his cigarettes for real – but the book ends on an ambiguous note, since the eventual fates of Dale, and of Sunny after she goes home, remain unknown. This is very much like real life and very much like what families endure when one member is seriously troubled. The fact that the story is told with such sensitivity and maturity in graphic-novel format testifies to the increasing maturation of the form – and the fact that this is a graphic novel may make it easier for preteens facing similar circumstances to see their own lives reflected here.
Few preteens or teenagers will see themselves reflected in Colleen Frakes’ Prison Island, a memoir of the time Frakes and her family spent living on the island holding the last U.S. prison accessible only by air or water. This is McNeil Island in the state of Washington, now abandoned, but at one time a place where prison employees and their families lived, went to school, made friends, and confronted the everyday dramas of growing up – all in a setting that seems exotic until you get to the nitty-gritty of life there, which Frakes quickly does. The book is done in black-and-white, unlike the other graphic novels considered here, and this gives it something of the feeling of an old movie or a series of old photos. Most of the book involves a return by Frakes’ family to the island after the prison is closed and the homes abandoned, but there are flashbacks showing scenes from Frakes’ childhood as she lived it. The book is a bleak one, perhaps reflecting conditions on the island or Frakes’ memory of it, or perhaps simply demonstrating the way she chooses to tell her story. There is little humor here, although a sequence in which Frakes and a friend try unsuccessfully to pick up pizza has amusing as well as unhappy elements, and there is little attempt to connect in any way with readers: Frakes’ childhood was very, very different from that of the likely readers of this book, and she emphasizes that point so often that she distances herself from people who would likely be predisposed to empathize with or at least be highly interested in her story. Nothing dramatic happens during Prison Island; even the three escapes that occur during Frakes’ time there are mundane. That may be part of the point Frakes wants to make: that despite all the oddities of the way she lived, she was just an ordinary kid growing up in less-than-ordinary circumstances. Certainly she makes an effort to describe conditions on the island accurately and to explain about the (few) pluses and (many) minuses of her time there. But there is something off-putting about Prison Island, which lacks any real attempt to connect with readers and instead simply assumes that Frakes’ story, given pictorially in graphic-novel format, will in and of itself find an interested audience. But graphic novels (or any novels) can be pushed only so far. This one gets a (+++) rating for its honesty and the matter-of-fact way it handles some unusual circumstances; but its grounding in reality does not make up for its rather plodding pacing.
The pacing is anything but slow in Space Dumplins, which lies at the opposite graphic-novel extreme from Sunny Side Up and Prison Island. There is nothing the slightest bit realistic in this harebrained but thoroughly enjoyable Star Wars-like adventure, whose colors are so saturated that they will hurt some readers’ eyes and whose use of comic-book and adventure-film conventions is so deeply ingrained that the whole (++++) book comes across as an ongoing romp that pauses from time to time just long enough to tug at readers’ heartstrings. Craig Thompson is a master of manipulation, both of his characters and of his intended audience, and this unusually lengthy graphic novel – more than 300 pages – is packed with everything from hairbreadth escapes to ridiculous heroics to pathos-filled family scenes to biblical musings by a chicken. Oh yes, the whole “alien races” thing permeates Space Dumplins, whose central characters turn out to be a human preteen named Violet; a highly educated chicken named Elliott – who is studious, prone to fits and to dreams that come true, terrified of going into space, and estranged from his brilliant-scientist father; and a lumpkin named Zacchaeus, last of his destroyed species except for his much bigger and really nasty brother, Zucchinus. Then there are three ne’er-do-well lumpy (not lumpkin) types from Violet’s father’s past – Tinder, Gerome and Gwumpky – who race to the heroic (and extremely messy) rescue when Violet’s dad, Gar, gets in over his head in a job involving, umm, space-whale poop (which looks and apparently smells disgusting but is also an important source of energy for space colonies). In addition to the whales, there are bad creatures called Jirglebytes that have a habit of chewing up asteroids, schools, spaceships, that sort of thing. Also here are Adam, the clothing designer who employs Violet’s mother, Cera; a wonderful junkyard-guarding beastie named Radcliffe with one head that really likes Violet and one that can’t stand her (or anyone); a military officer whose job is to provide several levels of mercenaries on demand, ranging from a giant transformer robot “with anthropomorphic charm” (a silly smiling face) to a “budget option” of sort-of-human creatures that stamp their feet and try to look fierce; and many, many more – a huge cast beautifully delineated both in words and in drawings. The central threesome proves far stronger together than separately, as evidenced when Violet intones at one of the many crucial moments that Zacchaeus is “my strength, my chutzpah, my Wild Thing,” while Elliott is “my sensitivity, my spirit guide, my Little Prince.” The all-pervasive humor here is balanced by a genuine sense of bizarre adventure and a certain level of self-referential awareness, as when the ominous “Lab Star” turns out to be lobster-shaped (complete with claws), leading one character to comment, “That has to be the stupidest gimmick name ever.” What is far from stupid is the brilliant way Thompson and colorist Dave Stewart make all the strange and wonderful scenes come alive. Thompson knows the boundaries of graphic novels intimately – the malleable panels, the ability to stretch the action in any direction, the availability of interplay between extremely complex enlarged panels and small ones showing details or silhouettes, and much more – and he actually expands those boundaries through some tremendously creative visualization, such as a full-page spinning-space background on which are superimposed nine separate small panels showing various characters’ actions, each panel turned in a different direction (with dialogue balloons to match). There are full-page and two-page scenes of destruction, battling and general messiness, odd-shaped panels galore (such as a trapezoidal one subdivided into sixths), and occasional no-panel-at-all character appearances (such as one in which Violet surveys the ugly, messy way her family is forced to live and vows “No” to living that way in the future). Space Dumplins has a silly title – based on a remark in Moby-Dick, of all places, about “indestructible dumplings” – that in no way reflects its first-rate storytelling, top-of-the-line art, and wonderful understanding of just how well a story can be told in graphic-novel form.
The silliness actually goes deeper, but to less effect, in the sequel to Teen Boat! The original book was so absurd as to be “campy,” for anyone who remembers that term: it was beyond silliness that a teenage boy could transform himself at will (and sometimes be transformed against his will) into a small yacht. The first book by Dave Roman and John Green set the stage of typical teenage angst that just happened to involve a boy-to-boat transformer. Toss in some inept pirates and a best-pal girl who is really right for Teen Boat but whom he acknowledges only as a friend – and who may be a transformer herself – and you have, or had, the ingredients for an unusually juvenile teen-focused graphic novel whose genuinely funny moments were enough to encourage overlooking its extreme level of absurdity. The Race for Boatlantis, unfortunately, makes such overlooking impossible. There is just too much ridiculousness here: a high-school principal who was once in love with a boat; a handsome rival known as TeenBot who can transform into a captain’s chair, not an actual yacht; an undersea land where boats rule; a chance for TeenBoat to meet his father, who turns out to be a submarine; the discovery of the fact that his gal pal, Joey, can transform into an iceberg, and the appearance of Joey’s iceberg mom and human father; the enmity between icebergs and the boats of Boatlantis; the reappearance of the pirates; and the maneuvering of the ultimate bad guy, Richard Walet Sr., also known as Copperface. There is a lot of action, most of it pointless, in The Race for Boatlantis, although there is one clever scene in which Teen Bot and Joey kiss at last and find themselves combined (temporarily) into a boat/iceberg that is powerful enough to take on the bad guys. The rest of the story, though, is at best adequate – mostly silly, and not in a good way. The boat jokes are overdone, the final battle is not nearly as “epic” as Teen Boat proclaims it to be, the defeat of Copperface is an anticlimax, and the book’s conclusion at high-school graduation just sort of peters out. The Race for Boatlantis is a (+++) book for those who liked the original, more-enjoyable Teen Boat! It will really not be of interest to readers unfamiliar with the prior graphic novel. But one thing showing the maturity of the graphic-novel form is the fact that books of this design, like the traditional novels of old, can be produced that are very good, even exceptional – or very bad – or, like The Race to Boatlantis, simply mediocre.