October 05, 2023


Link + Hud: Heroes by a Hair. By Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey. Norton. $8.95.

Elemental: The Graphic Novel. Adapted by Steve Behling. Random House. $12.99.

     Graphic novels have gone from a subgenre to a genre of their own that spawns subgenres. Nominally, they are extended comic strips: books that tell their stories entirely through comic-strip panels and extended comic-strip narrative techniques – from actual narration (typically above-the-panel boxed information) to dialogue. In practice, however, the boundaries of graphic novels are being constantly refined and redefined, to such an extent that it can be difficult even to understand whether or not something is a graphic novel. Take, for example, the case of Link + Hud: Heroes by a Hair. Most of the story is told through traditional text, which would make this simply a novel. But the text frequently contains pictures that show specific scenes or advance the story – so, all right, it is an “illustrated novel.” But several pages are entirely or almost entirely filled with illustrations, to a greater extent than in what would usually be considered an “illustrated novel.” And whole sections of the book are told as extended comic strips, so those sections are graphic-novel portions – but does that make the whole book a graphic novel? It is true that this sort of defining and word play is ultimately unimportant if the young readers at whom brothers Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey aim their book enjoy the story. But the question is still germane, because those young readers (or their parents) may be more or less likely to pick up Link + Hud: Heroes by a Hair based on whether it is a novel, illustrated novel, graphic novel, or something else. The reason is that young readers’ interest in books varies so widely: some may thumb through the traditional-narrative parts of this book and decide not to read it, while others may open it to a graphic-novel section and decide that is not their preferred form of tale-telling. The book itself is aimed at readers ages 7-10 and is typical for a work intended for young preteens: older brother Link and younger brother Hud are inveterate mischief-makers whose constant forays into realms of their imagination have unexpected-by-them real-world consequences that lead, among other things, to the dismissal of every single teenager brought in to keep an eye on them (babysit, if you will) while their parents are out doing things. Their father is a doctor whose practice is run by their mother, so the two parents tend to be away at exactly the same times. And it is pretty obvious that these boys – full names Lincoln and Hudson, so they are apparently named after automobiles – need some level of babysitting so their parents can be reasonably confident that their house will still be standing and inhabitable after office hours. Teenagers having proved useless, the boys’ parents arrange for them to be watched by Mrs. Joyce, who has a gold tooth and who tells Link and Hud, “Listen, I done raised fifteen brothers and sisters, six of my own kids, thirteen grandbabies, a great-grandbaby, and sixty-two nieces and nephews. You ain’t gotta say a word for me to know what you thinkin’ – you want me gone.” True! The boys worry that Mrs. Joyce may be able to rein them in, and that would simply be unacceptable. So the rest of the book is mainly about the boys trying to get Mrs. Joyce fired – even though she gives them positive reinforcement, treats them well, and gets them to help with mindless-but-necessary chores by letting them watch mindless-and-unnecessary TV shows. The graphic-novel parts of the book, in which the boys have imaginary adventures in outer space, a magical kingdom, a mysterious island lair, and elsewhere, are its most amusing elements – and the way in which it turns out that those flights of fancy have real-world effects is the most innovative part of the story. The rest, though, does not work as well. The reference to “hair” in the title has to do with a side business that the boys’ parents are trying to start for no discernible reason. It involves hair products called Au Salon, which eventually turn out to be unsuitable for hair but highly useful for other purposes – as revealed in the rather abrupt turn of events that leads to the book’s conclusion. The whole “hair products” subplot seems tacked-on and does not really work, although the book’s target readers will likely enjoy the one almost-full-page illustration in which, during an Au Salon presentation, Hudson accidentally shows up naked. The back-and-forth between the boys and Mrs. Joyce is all right for a time, as she goes out of her way to make the boys look good to their parents (while all the other babysitters make them look bad – understandably). But when the boys decide that Mrs. Joyce’s positive attitude toward them means she must be a “bad guy,” and set out to prove it, the story starts to seem forced. Will any of this matter to readers ages 7-10? Will the question of what sort of book this is matter to them? Maybe not: there is enough amusement in Link + Hud: Heroes by a Hair to keep things entertainingly superficial, even if the book is not entirely sure what sort of book it is, or wants to be.

     There appears to be little question about what sort of book Elemental: The Graphic Novel is. After all, it says “graphic novel” right there in the title. But that is not really a full description of this adaptation of the Disney/Pixar movie Elemental. Yes, the basic structure is that of a graphic novel: top-of-panel boxes give narrative information while the boxes themselves focus on characters, scenic views, dialogue and action. But the point here is not so much to tell a story as to re-tell it: the book is designed more as a souvenir of the film, and a chance for fans to revisit it, than as anything likely to be picked up for its own sake. As such, this for-print adaptation follows the movie’s script carefully, which means it glosses over weaknesses that have somewhat limited the appeal of Elemental and that a full novelization (rather than graphic novelization) might have clarified. The movie’s premise is “what if the four classical elements of Air, Earth, Fire and Water had feelings?” This is a standard Pixar approach, previously used for toys, cars, emotions and more. But the “element” concept is a bit tricky. One premise of the film is that Fire elements are somehow looked down upon and even discriminated against. Why? No one ever explains. Another premise is that elements keep to themselves and do not generally interact. But when two characters, Bernie and Cinder, arrive in Element City, Bernie restores Cinder’s flame by feeding her wood – clearly a piece of an Earth element – in a scene that is glossed over and, again, never explained or given context. Furthermore, the film is pervaded, especially early on, by notions of the immigrant experience; and portions of that (such as words in the “Firish” language) are part of the story throughout. But while this could have been a rich vein of humor and pathos to mine, it is given short shrift and for much of the movie, and much of this book, is dropped altogether. For all these reasons, Elemental: The Graphic Novel is better thought of as a “novelization” of the movie, a transfer to paper of its scenes and dialogue but not really an exploration of its themes or characters in any way beyond those in the movie itself. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, provided that the book is seen more as a souvenir of the film and a chance to revisit it than as a viable story in its own right. The colors are bright and rather garish, the pacing pretty much matches that of the film, the characters on the pages look like the ones on the screen, and if there is nothing in Elemental: The Graphic Novel that will likely inspire young readers to want to see the movie if they haven’t seen it already, there is also nothing in it that will cause them to recall it in any negative way. As an on-paper adaptation of an on-screen story, Elemental: The Graphic Novel makes an enjoyable memory aid and memento, and the exact genre or subgenre into which the book fits does not really matter.

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