December 31, 2014


Nnewts, Book One: Escape from the Lizzarks. By Doug TenNapel. Color by Katherine Garner. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.

     Here we have yet another derivative fantasy-adventure in which a youngster comes to awareness of his true role and begins to assume the mantle of hero, all within a world where good and evil are clearly defined and the bad guys are bad simply because they are, well, bad. But what makes this particular foray into fantasy so enjoyable is not the derivative plot but the considerable graphic-novel skill of Doug TenNapel, whose books are consistently fascinating to look at even when they tell stories of significantly less interest than the art used to move the tales along.

     This is not to say that this opening book of the Nnewts sequence is uninteresting – just that many readers will recognize the scenes as very similar to ones they have read or observed many times before. This story takes place in a world populated by amphibians (the good guys) and reptiles (the treacherous, sneaky, mean and evil guys). It is also a world filled with magic, which of course can be used for good by the good guys and for evil by the evil guys. The central character is a newt, or rather Nnewt, named Herk (the resemblance of his name to that of Hercules is definitely not coincidental). Herk still has gills and is therefore stuck spending most of his time in the water until his small, weak legs grow longer and stronger. But they seem not to be doing anything of the sort. Herk’s parents are helpful, supportive and suitably concerned about him; and his father, a magician, is also worried about signs that the evil lizards, or rather Lizzarks, may be planning an attack on the village.

     The book’s events are pretty much straightforward for a story like this. Herk’s father, Gullimar, goes out with hunters Odetto and Urch to figure out what the threat to the village is. The three are set upon by a weretoad, a multi-eyed monster that seems to be mostly teeth, and Gullimar and Odetto are killed. Back home, Herk’s mother, Gayla, becomes the victim of marauding Lizzarks that invade the village, and Herk’s sister, Sissy, disappears. TenNapel’s handling of the weretoad attack is particularly adept – partly because Katherine Garner’s first-rate coloring fits the panels’ action so well – and Herk’s underwater escape from the destruction is also handled with considerable skill. Best of all, though, is a scene in which the shades of Gullimar and Gayla meet in the land after death and journey together to the arms of the Hunter, a giant sky dweller strongly resembling the constellation Orion (and in fact referred to as Orion, albeit not quite the Orion we humans know). This after-death journey is the most unusual element of the book’s plot and the most interestingly handled in both words and drawings.

     Back in the land of the living, things proceed much as they usually do in heroic fantasy. Herk finds out that he is far more important than he ever dreamed. He meets the magic-wielding king of a long-dead kingdom, who sends Herk to the place where his real legs – not the spindly ones he has been using – can be found. Herk recovers them from the monstrous Snake Lord, who stole them from him, and so begins to come into his destiny. Meanwhile, Urch is captured by the bad guys, transformed into Lizzurch, and set on the trail of Herk. And Herk finds his way to a city of Nnewts that he never knew existed – it seems the Nnewts quarreled and split into two non-communicating groups in the distant past – and is soon adopted by a warm, loving family that grants him shelter without knowing quite who or what he is. There is a battle between the Snake Lord and Orion, too, before readers find out that Sissy is alive and a captive – and just another pawn in the Lizzarks’ evil plans.

     There is little originality in this story, for all that TenNapel dresses it up attractively and creates many exotic creatures to move the plot along. Indeed, even some of the dressing-up will be familiar to some readers: the behavior of and banter among certain characters are right out of Jeff Smith’s Bone, for example. But this first book of Nnewts is nevertheless captivating, because if TenNapel’s weakness is in story originality, his strength is in artistic originality, and his graphic novels are instantly recognizable and always highly stylish. Even his scenes of violence – the blowup of the weretoad, for example – have a certain beauty and impressiveness to them, and no gratuitous gore. TenNapel’s multiple panel shapes and sizes are used to fine effect, and the angles from which he draws the scenes make them particularly effective – with Garner’s fine color work giving them an extra boost. Fans of TenNapel’s earlier books will not find this one to be at the level of Ghostopolis or Cardboard, but it already matches or surpasses Bad Island and Tommysaurus Rex – and there is still more of Nnewts to come.

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