Shh! Reviews of two Wordless GNs for all ages
These two books were both published as graphic novels for younger readers, by very different publishing houses – Owly comes from the small, quirky comics-oriented press Top Shelf, while The Arrival is a rare graphic novel from the childrens’ publishing juggernaut Scholastic – and they have interestingly different reasons for being wordless.
Owly is more obviously for kids; it’s drawn in a somewhat fussy comic-book approximation of a clean-lined animation style, with big eyes and heads on small bodies. The characters, with the possible exception of a friendly storekeeper, are all clearly meant to be kid-equivalents; this is a world like Arnold Lobel’s “Frog & Toad” stories where pseudo-children live on their own and deal with kid-sized issues themselves. It’s pretty obviously wordless so that even kids who can’t read yet can follow the story. (Talking about wordless comics can cause troubles with explaining just what “reading” means in a particular case – there are a lot of kids who can “read” the Owly books even though they can’t decode words in English yet.)
In the first three books, our main character, Owly, has made friends with a worm (Wormy – not Dave Trampier’s character, though), a snail, a butterfly, and what I think is a chipmunk (or maybe a field mouse). The stories are all about friendship: learning to trust each other and to make friends with creatures that you suspect might want to eat you. Since these characters are all in a sweet all-ages comics story, everything works out fine, but I do have to wonder about the lesson. (Or maybe this is exactly the lesson kids need right now, since they already get way too much of the opposite lesson: to hate and fear anything unexpected, strange, or different.)
In this book, creator Andy Runton introduces yet another character, an opossum. He, too, is scared of Owly – as an opossum should be; owls are serious predators, and real-world owls are probably the scariest, nastiest things these kind of small animals will ever know. (If Owly runs much longer, Runton’s reliance on the introduce-a-new-character-who’s-scared-of-Owly plot could cause trouble; it’s hard to have a large cast in a book where no one speaks or has names in the main story.) Everything works out well in the end, of course, though it gets a bit weepy along the way. Some kids who are physically able to follow this story might find it emotionally hard to take. But, if they’ve read the first three Owly books, they’ll be expecting the friendly, happy ending.
The Owly books do have some appeal to adults, particularly mushy, sappy adults who have young children (like myself). People who exclusively read mainstream comics would probably find Owly intensely sappy; I think it’s exceptionally sweet. I like Owly and his friends, and I want to see them happy.
The Arrival is somewhat different; it’s the latest book by Shaun Tan, a talented Australian writer-artist who has created a number of graphic-novelish picture books for children. (His The Rabbits, a fantastic re-imagining of the European settling of Australia, is particularly good.) It’s presumably aimed at a somewhat older audience, one that already knows how to read. But The Arrival isn’t wordless because its audience can’t read at all, it’s wordless because that audience, like everyone in the world, can’t read everything.
The Arrival is an immigrant’s story: our main character is a young father, who leaves his wife and daughter behind in his old country to travel somewhere new, presumably for greater opportunity. Tan’s art, in a variety of sepia and black tones, is amazing, showing the wonder of a new country. After a dreary, crowded trip on a bland ocean-going vessel, our hero enters a blazing harbor, humming with activity and featuring a huge, hard-to-understand statue at its gate. He runs the gamut of immigration officials and enters a very strange city – and that’s Tan’s point. The city our immigrant finds so strange will be equally strange to every reader, no matter where she’s from or what city he calls home. No reader, of any language, will be left out; Tan has made his story utterly universal through comics.
The story continues from there, as the immigrant finds a place in his new city – and learns the life stories of several other people, also told impeccably well in wordless comics. Tan might not be known as a comics artist, but he’s excellent at the visual language of comics, throwing to a flashback without a word and coming back to the main storyline seamlessly. It’s a lovely, touching story, at times wavering between symbolism and raw reality in a way like no other book I know.
Quite simply, The Arrival is one of the great graphic novels of the year – perhaps of the decade – and I hope our field takes it to heart and celebrates it as it deserves. This is a wondrous book, full of amazing images (and sequences of images) and telling a deeply human, ultimately triumphant story.
Owly, Vol. 4: A Time to Be Brave
Top Shelf, 2007, $10.00
Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2007, $19.99
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.