November 15, 2007


And When She Opened the Closet, All the Clothes Were Polyester! A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $8.95.

Beowulf. Story adapted by Stefan Petrucha. Artwork by Kody Chamberlain. HarperTrophy. $8.99.

Miki Falls 3: Autumn. By Mark Crilley. HarperTeen. $7.99.

Vampire Kisses 1: Blood Relatives. By Ellen Schreiber. Art by Rem. Tokyopop/Katherine Tegen Books/HarperTeen. $7.99.

The Baby-Sitters Club #3: Mary Anne Saves the Day. By Ann M. Martin. Adapted and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Graphix/Scholastic. $8.99.

      A picture is not necessarily worth a thousand words on its own. In the right combination, though, words and pictures can have a good deal more value than either does separately. The best comic-strip creators understand this intuitively, which is how they become tops in their field. Bill Amend’s long-running FoxTrot, now a Sundays-only strip, gets its final collection of dailies in And When She Opened the Closet, All the Clothes Were Polyester! It’s a last chance to appreciate the strip’s clever daily writing and understated visual portrayals of the interactions and peculiarities of the Fox family. Instead of the usual 128 pages, this book runs 168 – and includes Amend’s subtle farewell to readers, in which his characters say there’s no way the cartoonist will break “the fourth wall” by talking directly to the readership…by which means, of course, Amend breaks it. The antics of genius preteen Jason remain central here – in one strip, he decides to sell directions to a lemonade stand so he can make money as a middleman; elsewhere, he becomes involved in “World of Warquest” in his own inimitable style. But all the Fox characters will be sorely missed – Sundays-only strips lack the continuity that has long been Amend’s forte.

      The other books here are graphic novels, and never mind the academic distinctions between them and comics – the different visual impact is clear enough. Beowulf will dismay purists, but in fact it is a highly impressive interpretation of the famed Old English epic (although the cover wrongly calls Beowulf “the world’s first – and greatest – hero,” a designation more properly belonging to Gilgamesh, whose tale is more than 3,000 years older). Stefan Petrucha gets a surprising amount of the context of Beowulf right: the poem was written when Christianity was still trying to displace older religions, and that is in part what it is about – and Petrucha maintains both the Norse elements (forms of heroism, funerals, the notion of “Wyrd” as Fate) and the Christian ones (the monster Grendel, a descendant of Cain, going on the attack “cloaked in the hatred of God”). Kody Chamberlain’s moody illustrations, in dark hues throughout, beautifully capture the worldview of the Beowulf poet and help readers envision a people for whom heroism is the only hope of escape from darkness. Besides, Beowulf is a tremendously thrilling story – it fits the graphic-novel format surprisingly well.

      The four-part Miki Falls tale by Mark Crilley takes on a darker and more intense tone in Autumn, with the result that this is the best of the books so far. The more absurd elements of the story – Miki’s boyfriend, Hiro, is a Deliverer, his job being to preserve the finite amount of love in the world – are downplayed here except to serve as the background to the threats that Miki and Hiro must face. That makes this book more of an adventure tale and a story of determined young love. Intended for ages 13 and up, the story has a fair degree of emotional intensity and several scenes of Miki and Hiro living together, albeit apparently quite chastely. They receive help in their quest to be together and be left alone from two sources, one of them quite unexpected; and as the story deepens, so does Crilley’s art. Practically every page has broken panels, eyes looming in the background, or other effective visual touches that both advance the story and intensify it.

      There’s less intensity in the first graphic novel based on Ellen Schreiber’s Vampire Kisses series, which so far has grown to four books and targets the same age group as Miki Falls. But the art by Rem (who uses a single name) does a fine job of visualizing the main characters, especially goth girl Raven and her handsome vampire boyfriend, Alexander. This tale is mostly a setup for what comes afterward – we meet the main characters and get capsule pictures both of them and of what they want from each other. The manga drawings here, like Crilley’s, partake strongly of original Japanese mature-comic art, but have a few twists of their own. And the character-development sketches at the end are a real bonus, showing which cast members looked right to Schreiber in the first place and which ones went through a series of redesigns.

      For younger graphic-novel readers, Raina Telgemeier’s series based on Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club continues to be a treat in its third volume. Here the art is much simpler, the story structure closer to that of comic books, the panels arranged more regularly than in graphic novels for teens. The baby-sitters here are seventh graders and are as busy sorting out friendship issues as they are making money by helping parents with younger children. A huge fight among the members of the club is the impetus for the events in Mary Anne Saves the Day, but by the time the book ends, everyone is back together and the club’s membership has actually grown by one person. The simplicity of Martin’s narration works well with the directness of Telgemeier’s illustrations – there is nothing done here for the sake of art alone; everything advances the story. Words and pictures – in all these books, worth more together than apart.

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