Ghosts. By Raina Telgemeier. Color by Braden Lamb. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.
Dog Man. By Dav Pilkey. Color by Jose Garibaldi. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Graphic novels are now firmly established as a genre unto themselves, not quite traditional narrative (not even traditional narrative with ample illustrations) and not quite comic books. But not all creators of graphic novels use the form the same way or with equal skill. Raina Telgemeier has an immediately recognizable drawing style and a firm grasp of ways in which graphic novels can communicate more effectively than all-words novels can. Ghosts is not what most people will think of as a “ghost story” – that is, it is not designed to scare, and most of the spookiness is in the mind of the protagonist, Catrina (Cat), not in the ghosts themselves. Oh yes, there are plenty of ghosts here, but the book is mostly about loneliness, disaffection, worry, and the meaning of family. That is a lot of freight for a traditional novel for young readers to carry; Ghosts bears it better than an all-words novel would, thanks to Telgemeier’s illustrative skill and the complementary, well-thought-out color work by Braden Lamb. The story is about preteen Cat and her younger sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. Because of that, the family moves to a Northern California town called Bahía de la Luna, where the climate is supposed to make it easier for Maya to breathe. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but what it certainly does is make Cat unhappy and uneasy, all the more so when she hears constantly from residents about the ghosts that are to be found everywhere in and around town. These are not evil, scary, haunted-house ghosts but matter-of-fact spirits that interact from time to time with the living residents, especially on Día de los Muertos, November 1. The book starts in August as Cat’s family moves; it climaxes on Día de los Muertos. What makes it work so well is the sure-handed way Telgemeier shows the relationship between Cat (who initially scoffs at the idea of ghosts and then becomes terrified of them, even after she meets some and finds them harmless – because she is afraid they will take away her little sister, whose disease is progressive and incurable) and Maya (whose joy-filled personality shines through her illness and who wants to interact with the ghosts to learn more about them and about what it is like to be dead). The third major character here is Carlos, a boy Cat’s age who leads “ghost tours” in town and whose introduction of the girls to a large number of the spirits inadvertently lands Maya in the hospital. Unsurprisingly, the adults in the book get short shrift – Cat’s parents’ insensitivity to Cat’s fears and worries is particularly irksome – but this is, after all, a book about and for preteens. And Telgemeier’s use of the graphic-novel format is consistently impressive. At a street fair, for example, a full-page wordless drawing shows Cat and two friends walking along as well-differentiated people all around them engage in everyday activities that are immediately apparent in the art but would require considerable descriptive text. Later, four pages of panels showing the town’s celebration of Día de los Muertos bring the scenes of interaction with ghosts to life more immediately and clearly than words would, so that when Cat eventually says, “This is incredible,” readers will surely agree. There is no great drama here, but the matter-of-fact acceptance of ghosts leads to a fully satisfying, family-centered conclusion that wraps up the story neatly without trying to force readers to accept anything outlandish, such as a miracle cure for Maya.
Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man is a much lighter book, intended for younger readers, but it too makes good use of the graphic-novel format, although in this case it tilts toward the comic-book side of things. Pilkey is best known for the Captain Underpants series that was supposedly created by two friends, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, in first grade. Dog Man is presented as an earlier (kindergarten) collaboration between George and Harold, but one they have now updated and improved. It is still ridiculous, but that of course is the point. The title character comes into being when the nefarious cat Petey blows up the city’s top cop and his dog: the cop’s head is dying, doctors say, and so is the dog’s body. The solution they come up with is to remove the dog’s head (which could always think better than the cop’s could) and sew it onto the cop’s body (which was always stronger and tougher than the dog’s). The result is Dog Man, the stitches between his head and body always clearly visible as he runs around foiling the plots of Petey and various other evildoers. The funniest story is about the criminal activities of the city’s mayor, who manipulates Petey as well as the police force, creating a robot to take the place of the chief of police and make sure the cops do not get in the way of her commercial enterprises (stores such as Tim’s Burglar Supplies, Illegal Stuff 4 Sale and Supa Scam). One effective way Pilkey uses the graphic-novel format is to show these various stores and leave their contents to readers’ imaginations. And other stories are hilarious, too, such as the one in which hot dogs become conscious and try to take over the world. That tale certainly benefits from the graphic-novel approach. Another thing that does is Pilkey’s periodic inclusion of a flip page. No, not a full flip book – it is simply one page that needs to be flipped with the following one, back and forth and back and forth, to create a very crude form of almost-animation. Pilkey tosses a few sly elements into Dog Man that are clearly for adults. For instance, the first-grade teacher who objects to the drawings of George and Harold is named “Ms. Construde.” And at the book’s end, Pilkey offers several how-to-draw-them lessons for characters in Dog Man – including “Invisible Petey” (he is invisible in the criminal-mayor story). That lesson shows eight steps, all of them blank, then gives four examples of expressions, also all blank, the last blank spot being labeled “obsequious.” These drawing lessons alone show the strength of the graphic-novel format for this story, and the fun Pilkey has with his plots – such as one in which Petey gets rid of the words in all the world’s books so everybody will be dumber than he is – comes through more directly and amusingly in graphic-novel form than it would if Pilkey had to produce a traditional, coherent narrative. Graphic novels, it would appear, have definitely come of age – different ones for different ages, all the good ones using the blended words-and-pictures format to very good effect indeed.
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