April 27, 2017


The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship. By Philip Pullman. Illustrated by Fred Fordham. Graphix/Scholastic. $19.99.

     Philip Pullman does nothing straightforwardly. Whether reinterpreting the Miltonic universe in his best-known work, the His Dark Materials trilogy, or working with John Aggs on a comic strip for The DFC (David Fickling Comics) – or reconsidering traditional fantasy/adventure and fairy-tale tropes in Clockwork, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Mossycoat, I Was a Rat! and elsewhere – Pullman brings along a unique sensibility, a willingness to stretch forms and topics, a desire to communicate well beyond any strictures of age, and an interest both in the outrĂ© and in the everyday, humdrum world (which is never quite humdrum in Pullman’s hands).  It is tempting to think of Pullman as trying to pull man (and woman, and child) in some entirely new directions, just as P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins was someone who popped in now and then with a bit of magic and the occasional dose of harsh reality. The fact that Poppins is fiction and Pullman reality is at most an accident of birth.

     And now Pullman has turned his attention to the graphic novel, taking that comic strip he created for The DFC and taffy-pulling (or taffy-pull-man-ing) it into a work of mystery, adventure, fantasy, science, science fiction, time warps, geography, nautical travel – a massive potential mishmash that, in actuality, is so exciting and variegated that even its most absurd elements become ones in which readers will want to believe, or will fear they have no choice but to believe.

     It is the simple (no, not simple at all) story of a young girl named Serena who is knocked overboard from a small boat during a storm and rescued by a young boy named John Blake, whose ship is lost, not at sea, but in time – crewed by people from various time periods (from ancient Rome to the modern day) and trying to get back where various people belong. The drifting-in-time theme connects to a story of an Einsteinian experiment gone wrong, which connects to the tale of an always-connected cotemporary device called an apparator, which connects to a story of murder and industrial theft, which connects to a story of overweening corporate ambition and greed, which connects to a story of obsession not only of the evil corporate mogul but also of a determined young woman who is tracking the ship-out-of-time and therefore finds herself in danger.

     The story threads, so elaborate and so beautifully interconnected, bespeak Pullman’s style. But this is a graphic novel, and it can succeed only to the extent that the illustrations complement and enhance the story. Fred Fordham’s do that and more than that: they tell the story, often through wordless panels whose subtle colors do an excellent job of reflecting the various characters and events. The critical set-in-motion event in which John Ford is set adrift in time is presented as a two-page spread, almost entirely white, with an alarmed-looking boy either drifting into clouds or becoming cloudlike himself as he recedes toward the background. Other pages are done in hues that reflect the story’s time periods and events, from sepia tone for older scenes to dark reds and browns in a corporate environment to dark, dark grey and brown with occasional touches of red in a climactic fight scene – and much more. Fordham is especially adept with eyes: the characters’ expressions and attitudes, their truthfulness or prevarication, their sensibility or madness, are reflected in their eyes to an extraordinary degree. Pullman manages, and Fordham illustrates, a massive climax that knits together multiple threads of the story, but leaves open plenty of possibilities for one or more sequels to this engrossing book – perhaps focused on John Blake’s ship, the Mary Alice, itself. Or is it herself? That is one question left tantalizingly unanswered here. But the book’s title is, after all, The Adventures of John Blake. That is “adventures,” plural, and implies that Mystery of the Ghost Ship is but one of a series of voyages. We can only hope.

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