Hey, Kids – Graphic Novels! A Review of Three Books for the Young ‘Uns
Of course, we all know that comics can be for adults now…but
they don’t have to be. Some of the best books
out there now were made for kids – which is just the way it was fifty years
ago, come to think of it. Now, I’m not claiming that these three books are the
best out there – my reading has been slipshod and random this year – but they’re
all worth reading for the right audience:
Tiny Tyrant: Volume One: The Ethelbertosaurus
By Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice
First Second, May 2009, $9.95
Trondheim is a prolific French cartoonist for both younger
readers and adults, with books like Kaput and Zosky and A.L.I.E.E.E.N. for the rugrats, the Dungeon series (with Joann Sfar and others) for various
audiences, and books like his diary comics (Little Nothings) for adults. Tiny Tyrant sees Trondheim in full kid-pleasing mode, with pint-size
King Ethelbert of Porto Cristo running amok and terrorizing all the adults
around him (with the possible exception of the nearly unflappable Miss Prime
This volume collects six stories of King Ethelbert, as he
discovers dinosaur bones, avoids assassination, engages in an
all-crowned-head-of-state motor race, meets Santa Claus, chases his favorite
author, and replaces all children in his domains with robot duplicates of
himself. Nothing ever turns out as he hopes, of course, but the stories have massive
amounts of verve and energy along the way, propelled by Parme’s stylish and
classy art (reminiscent of the UPA style).
Ethelbert is the kind of fictional character we’re all
deeply happy is purely fictional – he’d be a massive pain in person, but he’s
utterly funny and lovable when contained between the pages of a book.
(One note to consumers: this volume contains
exactly half of the stories published in 2007 in the book just titled Tiny
Tyrant. In publishing as in
business, the name of the game is putting together things that were originally
separate, and then separating things that were together. Repeat every few years
until interest runs out.)
Adventures in Cartooning
By James Sturm, Andrew Arnold,
and Alexis Frederick-Frost
First Second, April 2009,
Sturm is the founder and director of the Center for Cartoon
Studies, a MFA-granting institution in Vermont devoted to teaching comics
creation. Arnold and Frederick-Frost are two recent graduates of the CCS. And Adventures
in Cartooning is, in a way, an attempt to expand
the teaching of the CCS to a much larger (and much younger) audience.
Adventures is both a
graphic novel and a meta-graphic novel at the same time; it’s the story of a
knight trying to save a princess from a dragon with the help of a magic elf,
but also that elf’s explanation of how comics work – using the knight’s
adventures as an example. It runs through the basics – panels, balloons,
layouts – quickly and breezily, in a way I expect kids will enjoy.
The story is slight, of course, and the
cartooning lessons don’t go into vast depth, either, but both are fine for what
they are, and it adds up to a fun package that should energize a lot of budding
young cartoonists. If there’s a flood of Alexa Kitchens a few
years from now, we’ll know exactly who to thank.
Cat Burglar Black
By Richard Sala
First Second, September 2009,
Sala has never told stories specifically for younger readers
before – and his previous comics stories were usually too gory, and
occasionally too sexy, for most parents to be comfortable giving their children
to read – but Cat Burglar Black sees him
take his standard style, manner, and obsessions and turn them into something
spooky and adventurous for middle-schoolers.
K. Westree is the usual Sala heroine – tough, self-reliant,
perky, cute, with a determined set to her lips and a distinctive hair color
(this time white) – with boundless curiosity and determination. (And, though
not nearly as often as usual with Sala, conspicuously bare feet.) She grew up
in a nasty orphanage, run by an evil matron who trained her charges as pickpockets
and thieves, and was one of the star pupils before the authorities caught on
and closed the establishment.
Now she’s just arrived at a mysterious boarding school,
Bellsong Academy, summoned by a letter from an aunt she never knew she had. But
she finds that Bellsong, due to budget problems, currently has no classes, and
has only three other students. And it soon turns out that Bellsong is just as
dangerous as the frying pan that K. just escaped from – if not worse.
Luckily, K. is a natural cat burglar, and so has a chance to
evade the many death traps and sinister figures that always populate a Sala story.
Cat Burglar Black follows Sala’s usual plot
outline fairly closely, though he cuts away from the scenes of violence much
more quickly than he does in stories for adults. But it all works much better
than one would expect – Cat Burglar Black is that unlikely thing: a strong, entertaining graphic novel from a
great creator for adults, with nearly all of the strengths and idiosyncrasies
of his other work, yet still a fine entertainment for younger readers.
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.