By Doug TenNapel
283 pages, Scholastic Graphix, $12.99
I find Doug TenNapel a maddeningly inconsistent storyteller. He goes from the wonderful Ghostopolis to the disappointing Bad Island while delivering inventive graphics aided with strong color. Now we have Cardboard, which starts off with such promise and right around the halfway mark things spiral entirely out of control and become way too over the top.
Mike is an independent carpenter who recently lost his wife and the sour economy means he’s inching towards bankruptcy. We open on his son Cam’s birthday as Mike, with a mere seventy-eight cents to his name, desperately seeks work to afford a present. Despondently he heads home until he encounters Gideon, a roadside huckster who sells him a cardboard box for exactly seventy-eight cents. When Mike complains it’s empty, Gideon screams, “Empty? It’s full! Full of ideas…projects…adventure!” But of course, it comes with rules which will later drive the story.
The box is at first skeptically received until the two take tools to it and suddenly it is transformed into a boxer that magically comes to life. Bill the boxer comes complete with a rudimentary vocabulary and intelligence making his a step above an adorable puppy. He follows orders and is out mowing the grass before you know it, earning Cam the enmity of his spoiled goth-inspired friend Marcus, accompanied by his sidekick Pink Eye. A squirt of water soaks the cardboard man and brings him near death until Mike uses the scraps to build a device that emits fresh cardboard, which is then shaped to replacement parts and Bill lives.
But Marcus wants the device and his own cardboard man and from there we begin the slippery slope down to lunacy. Marcus of course gets the device and uses it without understanding the rules and just like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, one becomes many and all set to work. Given their intelligence, they decide to rule the world and the neighborhood is taken over by the growing numbers of cardboard simulacrums of people.
Of course, a garden hose would have nipped this in the bud at the outset but Mike and Cam appear to have lost their logical thought processes by this point. And this sort of lack in internal logic, which doomed the previous outing, also comes to haunt this work which showed such lovely potential at the outset.
Mike is despondent over his dead wife, feeling like a failure in raising Cam and is totally oblivious to the mutual attraction he has with his next door neighbor, the single Tina. We’re told how broke he is early on – not enough money to buy food let alone a present, but that thread is instantly dropped until the happy ending. The growing intelligence and development of Bill the Boxer as a character started off well but got shoved to side for the kinetic action that overwhelms the narrative. Mike, Cam and Bill are the most rounded characters while Marcus, hid Dad, and Tina are as two-dimensional as the cardboard that starts this off.
Just how did the cardboard become infused with magic? Gideon gives an incomplete answer first saying it is a result of alien or alien magicians that also can understand quantum particle physics. We never quite know or how Gideon obtained this wondrous object. In the grand scheme of things, its largely inconsequential to the overblown action.
TenNapel’s artwork is quite good and he tells his stories well, aided with superb color from Der-Shing Helmer. He acknowledges the editorial contributions that he felt made the book work but frankly, it needed serious editorial guidance to retain the emotional core which was sacrificed for too much cardboard plotting.