It is Christmas week so I decided to write the next installment of what I am calling
A MONTH OF FABULOUS GRAPHIC NOVELS IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER!!!!!
Series have many great qualities but sometimes a story simply stands alone.
I attended the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference held in Boston this year and I got the chance to meet and talk to Matt Phelan. It was especially poignant for me (and for him as well, I can only assume) because I used his first book, Storm in the Barn, for my dissertation. Storm is an award winning graphic novel set in the great dust bowl. There’s a boy, a drought, dust dementia, and allusions to Wizard of Oz, and the magic of abandoned buildings.
Phelan’s second book, set in the 1880s, Around the World, tells the story of three different travelers going around the world. There is excitement, sexism, funny looking bicycles, and pirates as these intrepid explorers circumnavigate the globe.
His new book, Bluffton, is by far my favorite. When I spoke to Matt (and yes, I’m calling him Matt now) about his books and my dissertation he said he feels like he finally knows what he’s doing.
There is not enough good words in the English language for me to talk about this book. I read it along with my eight your old son, Alex, who loves a good story. The novel is set in the turn of the century (beginning in 1908), and follows a young man who lives in Muskegan Michigan, works in his fathers general store, and lives a nice and regular life. The story begins when the train arrives with a load of Vaudevillian performers who stay at a nearby lake front community for some well earned relaxation. It takes a while to understand that we are reading the story of a young Buster Keaton. Buster’s inventions are lovingly illustrated with such detail we see inklings of his film work.
The illustrations are watercolor on a thick, buff colored paper. The pallet Matt selected provides the depth and gentility I imagine of the time, and at the same time expresses the vibrancy of kids running, jumping, and generally being crazy. At one point early on in our reading Alex requested some quiet time to look at the pictures by himself, “They are like paintings in a museum.” He wanted time to look and see the details, the characters, and the setting before reading the words.
After about twenty minutes, I wanted to continue reading, so I checked back with him. He was engrossed in the book, looking at a few of the pages with no written words. He looked up and said, “These are like art. I’m glad he didn’t distract us with words”. We discussed when Matt selects full pages, panels, words or no words. We have since finished the book and have started watching Buster Keaton movies.
Monster on The Hill by Rob Harrell is set in the 1860s English countryside where the cities and towns are happily terrorized by monsters of all sorts. This wonderfully silly graphic novel is a fantasy-alternate reality story where the bucolic country-side town of Stoker-on-Avon is unlucky enough to have a sad-sack of a monster, Rayburn.
Rayburn is a depresses, despondent, and lack-luster monster that can’t be bothered to pillage Stoker-on-Avon any longer. The towns folks, in a last ditch effort to save face, hire a disgraced Dr. Wilkie (who’s experiments have raised more havoc than Rayburn) to help their monster to pep-up. With the help of the local news boy, Timmy, the three set off on a road trip to visit Rayburn’s old monster school chums in hopes of regaining some of his ferocity.
The illustrations are bright and bold with plenty of action, including running, falling, real pillaging of Victorian cityscapes by Rayburn’s arch nemesis Murk, along with monster training help from Tentaculor (pictured at left), and sound effects aplenty. Harrell’s illustrations are not just visually loud, but they are also so finely detailed and rich the novel provides fodder for close, careful and repeated readings. A variety of page layouts including full pages with loads of small, intricate details, inset panels, and dialogue that moves the story forward.
I must admit to a bias on my part as a reader: I am a real font snob! I hate fancy fonts that make reading more difficult. Fonts with high kerning rates which makes the letters too close together for me to read easily. Also, loads of swirly serifs, thick lines with small counters (the space within the letters), and all sorts of other horrors that you can read about here on How To Geek. But, my point here is that Harrell escapes the cheesy font-a-palooza of bad book design. Instead, he uses font changes to express emotions, actions, and sounds in the best possible way.