June 02, 2016
(++++) WHERE COLORS MATTER
Dream Jumper, Book One: Nightmare Escape. By Greg Grunberg & Lucas Turnbloom. Color by Guy Major. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Wise Words to Color. By Zoë Ingram. Harper. $15.99.
Graphic novels such as the first in the Dream Jumper series have an impact through the interplay of words and pictures, which in the really good ones – and this is a good one – feed effectively off each other, so the result is novelistic in pacing despite comic-book-like illustrations. Greg Grunberg and Lucas Turnbloom – the former an actor producing his first book, the latter an experienced graphic novelist and cartoonist – have here created a just-believable-enough world with just enough blending of straightforward narrative and offbeat (even amusing) illustrations to keep readers involved, and to be sure they are distracted from the fact that the foundational plot here is the standard one of good vs. evil and about as formulaic as it can possibly be. Interestingly, one reason Nightmare Escape works as well as it does is the way it uses colors – and those are created not by Grunberg or Turnbloom but by Guy Major, who is experienced with comic-book and graphic-novel coloration and has created a palette for Nightmare Escape that really pulls readers into the story. For example, the “back story” here involves a long-ago good-against-evil war in which the main bad guy is called the Nightmare Lord. The concept is scarcely original, and the portrayal of the bad guy as a grey-clad, wrapped figure whose clothing (an all-concealing robe, of course) comes to a point like a wizard’s hat, but whose body is completely invisible within it except for one skeletal protruding hand, is nothing special. But the way the lower part of his body blends into or turns into a black cloud emitting tendrils of darkness in all directions is impressive, and the setting of the portrait against a background that subtly shades from purple at the bottom to a blood-red sky containing flesh-colored clouds is far more impressive than the appearance of the evil character. Likewise, the mysterious Ward Z where sleepers who are trapped in nightmares are monitored by sleep expert Dr. Alexson is well contrasted between the hospital-like corridors and the shades of blue in which the patients and their surroundings are rendered. Major’s colors are never intrusive, and he keeps them ordinary when that is what the story needs – many everyday-world characters have nothing special about their appearance, which is part of the point here. But when touches of bizarrerie are needed, Major adeptly helps Grunberg and Turnbloom supply them. The story involves a boy named Ben whose nightmares have a connection with reality that he decides he has to figure out when Kaylee, a girl he likes, goes to sleep and cannot be awakened – and ends up in the aforementioned Ward Z. Ben’s background is typically heroic: his father is dead, his extremely worn-out-looking mother is at her wits’ end trying to deal with life and with Ben’s dream issues, he has a comic-relief friend named Jake, and in the nightmares he ends up with a “tutor figure” who happens to be – a rabbit. That is one of the touches of humor here, as is the appearance of several other humans disguised as animals – although it turns out that there are serious reasons for their transformations. This first book of the Dream Jumper series neatly sets up the premise and introduces the characters, and it gives Ben an initial victory over one of the lesser baddies as he starts to discover his powers. Yes, this is extremely derivative plotting, to the point of almost being thin enough to see through. But it works. That is partly because of the pacing of the plot, partly because of the attractive use of multiple panel sizes and shapes, partly because of the quality of at least some of the dialogue – as when Ben unleashes some sort of force from his hand and then asks the rabbit, “What’s with this random energy blast thing I can do now? What am I, a Tesla coil?” Furthermore, the colors of Nightmare Escape are themselves involving enough to encourage readers to keep turning the pages – and to wait eagerly for the series’ next installment.
It is up to readers themselves – or perhaps the word is viewers, or colorers – to provide the palette for Wise Words to Color, the latest attractive Zoë Ingram book in which elaborate designs are delightful in black-and-white and are also available for expressive color rendering. Ingram likes to sprinkle sayings throughout her coloring-books-for-all-ages, but in this book she does not just sprinkle – she pours. The whole point of the book is the words, an unusual idea for a coloring book. Ingram makes some of the words themselves into artistic designs, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment, “Always do what you are afraid to do,” which features some letters in block print, some in cursive, some larger, some smaller, some decorated with leaves and some with circles and some plain. Other pages have decorated borders but comparatively plain type, as in the comment from Mark Twain, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Others feature lettering so elaborate that it is almost impossible to color, and would likely be diminished by so doing – although the area around the words could be interestingly colored, as for Emily Dickinson’s poetic thought, “We never know how high we are till we are called to rise; and then, if we are true to plan, our statures touch the skies.” Ingram interweaves some pages without any words among the ones containing them, so there are things to color here even for people who choose to let the words remain in black-and-white. The quality of the chosen quotations is variable, and the attractiveness of this book will largely depend on the extent to which the thoughts resonate with each individual – and how appropriate people consider the book’s whole concept to be. Some quotations here are well-known, such as this from Lewis Carroll: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Others are less familiar, such as this from Friedrich Nietzsche: “If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.” This is a (+++) book for a specialized group of readers: ones attracted by the concept and by the specific quotations chosen, and ones who believe that a coloring book focused on philosophical thoughts (at various levels of depth) is enjoyable. “What must be done is best done cheerfully,” comments Laura Ingalls Wilder on one page here – and although there is nothing that must be done in Wise Words to Color, those who wish to approach the book cheerfully will certainly find some words here to encourage them to do so.