July 08, 2021


The Cardboard Kingdom #2: Roar of the Beast. By Chad Sell. Knopf. $20.99.

     The wonderfully innovative Cardboard Kingdom created by Chad Sell for a 2018 graphic novel reappears with considerable fanfare in Roar of the Beast, although a certain level of preachiness and “cause mentality” make this sequel less entertaining and enjoyable than the original. It really is a sequel, taking place in autumn, right after the summertime of the first book – and since the characters are not introduced and the concept not explained or made particularly clear here, Roar of the Beast is really only suitable for readers familiar with the previous volume.

     That first book was quite marvelously inventive, featuring Sell’s concept with characters and cartooning by Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, David DeMeo, Jay Fuller, Cloud Jacobs, Barbara Perez Marquez, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, and Katie Schenkel. The Cardboard Kingdom name comes from the abundant use of cardboard boxes to make costumes and props for the ongoing role-playing of a group of suitably diverse (indeed, exceptionally diverse) neighborhood preteens – although, like so much else, the matter of the name was much clearer in the first book than it is in the second.

     What is clearer in The Roar of the Beast than in the previous book is that Sell’s setting, for all its apparent “typical suburbia” appearance, is actually an LGBTQ+ universe – reflective not only of the life of Sell and his husband but also of the lives of the contributors, most of whom are also LGBTQ+ (Moore died after the first book was published, but his partner, Weston, gave permission for continued use of Moore’s characters). For example, the character Jack not only dresses up as The Sorceress but also specifically tells his family and readers that he is “not just making myself more like the Sorceress” but is “making myself more like me,” which includes purple hair dye and taking his mother’s rings to wear (which is fine with her). Elsewhere, The Roar of the Beast is packed with characters reassuring each other that whatever they may be or pretend to be or be in the process of becoming, it is just fine: “You’re great the way you are,” says one, adding, “Honestly, I wish I was more like you,” which elicits the reply, “You’re always there for everyone else… I wish I was more like that.”

     There are also several scenes focused on the importance of simply listening to each other rather than trying to help or change things in any overt way: “When I was sad last summer, I talked to my mom about it. She couldn’t fix everything, but she was there for me. She listened.” In fact, parents are more present in the second book than the first, and this is not to the book’s benefit: a scene in which the father of Connie, a girl whose cardboard costume turns her into a robot, also dresses up as a robot, is particularly awkward and irrelevant to the plot, although loosely tied to it because it is autumn and Halloween is coming, after all.

     Halloween is the thread that loosely knits the elements of The Roar of the Beast together. The drama comes when one character, Nate, sees a monster in his backyard in the middle of the night, or thinks he does – immediately rushing to rescue his stepbrother, Elijah, from it, but instead tumbling downstairs and breaking his leg. In addition to sending all the kids into conniptions about a mysterious monster – variously hunting it, fearing it, or avoiding it – the incident makes Elijah feel so bad that he makes some questionable choices that lead to lies and that cause him to fear that Nate and his father will leave if the lies are ever uncovered. Interwoven with this story is one involving the “bullying” theme that also appeared in the first book, this time leading to a setup for a climactic scene in which the two bullies (teenagers rather than preteens) get their comeuppance with some turning-of-the-tables Halloween frights.

     The content revolves to a greater or lesser extent among the various artists, based largely on how many characters they contribute. The cartoonists live in different areas, so it is clear that Sell is the one pulling and entangling the many strings of the book to weave the overall narrative together. Fuller, for example, lives in Brooklyn with his husband and is responsible for three characters (Jack is one of them); Cole, on the other hand, teaches LGBTQ+ courses at Wichita State University and brings just one character to the Cardboard Kingdom. Thanks to the layering-on of multicultural, multiracial tropes in Roar of the Beast, young readers who want to find characters who “look like me” should have no difficulty doing so here – as was also the case in the first book. However, the original The Cardboard Kingdom excelled in making it clear that what kids care about is characters with whose experiences and feelings they can identify, even if the physical resemblance is not exact. This second book is less successful on that basis: it will certainly resonate with kids who are searching for a gender identity as part of their quest for who they are, but with perhaps 5% of the U.S. population identifying as LGBTQ+, that somewhat limits the book’s reach. Similarly, showing children with parents of different races definitely helps normalize families headed by interracial couples – but, again, that represents a small percentage of all marriages (about 8%, mostly involving Asian or Hispanic partners). There is inherent tension between the “ordinary suburbia” feeling of The Roar of the Beast and the characters and events in the book, and in some ways that is all to the good and often helps the story flow. But the underlying “agenda” nature of this book, and the need to have read its predecessor in order to make sense of what is happening and to whom, mean that the sequel does not quite measure up to Sell’s exceptionally creative original.

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