I did it! I took a deep breath and plunged into my first-ever graphic novel. And then, I liked it so much that I decided to read the sequel. Who'd have thought?
And speaking of unbelievabilities, would you believe that two years ago, if you'd said the words graphic novel, my brain would have conjured up something closer to a racy romance novel than a comic book? I honestly had no idea what a graphic novel was, and the first time I realized kids were reading them, I was more than a little shocked. (This is when it would have been a good idea to employ Google and find out that a graphic novel is, in fact, "a book made up of comics content.") (And also, don't think just because they're not racy romance novels that their content is always innocent and child-friendly. It isn't.)
Since this was my first foray into the heretofore unknown territory of graphic novels, this review will be as much about the genre itself as the actual books I read. So first, a few general thoughts:
Graphic novels take a lot of mental energy to read. Of course, I'm speaking of a different mental energy than you would use for, say, Dickens or a physics textbook. In this case, you are dissecting at least 50% of the story from the pictures, and it was obvious from the beginning that my brain just doesn’t work as well with pictures as it does with words. Sometimes I felt a little lost. In many ways, it felt slower than a normal book because I often spent a ridiculous amount of time on one group of pictures trying to figure out what on earth was going on.
However, at the same time, the pictures provide a unique kind of detail, excitement, and humor, unattainable with just words. It is more than just the pictures; it is the number of units per page and how they are arranged and their sizing and the placement of the text and the inclusion (or exclusion) of words. Take a look at these two pages from Rapunzel’s Revenge:
Notice how some of the pictures are squares, some are tall and vertical, while others are long and horizontal. I’m sure this is nothing unique to the graphic novel genre, but as a newbie, I was definitely intrigued with the originality of every page. If it were me drawing the pictures, I’m pretty sure I would succumb to a familiar pattern of three squares per row (or something equally boring), which is unfortunate since much of my enjoyment in reading this novel was derived by noticing how the white space was used. (The above pages, by the way, were taken from one of my very favorite scenes in Rapunzel’s Revenge. I especially love how Rapunzel’s toes are pointed so gracefully as she lassos that gigantic snake underwater.)
Perspective is also important: the picture might be zoomed in or out or taken from above or down below. With each change, the story gains depth and breadth and fleshes out the characters and the plot. Here’s another example from Rapunzel’s Revenge:
I love the close-up shot of Rapunzel’s braid, and the picture of her swinging on her hair, and the dizzying height of the tree. This is what made the novels so much fun to read.
And now, a few thoughts on the stories themselves.
Rapunzel’s Revenge takes the traditional story of Rapunzel and sets it in the Wild, Wild West. In this retelling, Rapunzel’s long hair isn’t a burden; it’s a weapon. She uses it to rope bad guys, snatch away objects, and whip sense into naysayers. After escaping from her tower, she meets an outlaw named Jack, and together they make a plan to defeat Mother Gothel and bring beauty and life back to the land.
Setting this story in the West was pure genius. It breathed new life into this well-known tale. Rapunzel became much more than a spineless heroine locked away waiting for a prince to come and save her. She was spunky and feisty and sassy, and she took firm control of her own destiny.
The illustrations were done by Nathan Hale, and the text was written by Shannon Hale and her husband, Dean. I wondered if I would like Shannon Hale’s style in this genre or if I would even be able to tell it was her with the text broken up between pictures and consisting mainly of dialogue set in conversation bubbles. But I could tell, and her style definitely worked in this setting. The vivid metaphors and similes I’ve come to expect from her were present but toned down, and I thought the pictures and words fit together beautifully.
After finishing Rapunzel’s Revenge, I was anxious to get a copy of Calamity Jack. In this one, Jack takes center stage and Rapunzel retreats to sidekick (although, with skills like hers, cohort is probably a better word). The events in Rapunzel’s Revenge actually happened right in the middle of Jack’s story, which began with a huge beanstalk and a power-hungry giant named Blunderboar and ended with Jack and his friends outsmarting the giants.
This one showcased the same kind of humor and action and clever plot twists as the first one, but I didn’t like it as much. I think the setting (industrial city) wasn’t as charming to me as the wide open country. That, and I really didn’t like the giants. (Um, yeah? Maybe that’s because they were the villains.) They were just so ugly, and with a book that is centered around the illustrations, well, really ugly giants can be a little hard on the eyes. Oh, and there were a bunch of made-up creatures, and you know how I feel about that...
I was slightly confused by Jack’s pixie-friend, Prudence. She just showed up at the beginning of the story with no introduction or explanation. The whole rest of the story, even after she had been a part of many scenes and adventures, I still felt like I had missed something important (but, judging from the number of times I went back to the beginning of the story and studied those darn pictures again, I didn’t).
Honestly, my favorite part of this story was probably when Freddie (a newspaperman/inventor-turned-accomplice) offers his backpack launcher to Jack. (The backpack launcher launches people.) Jack thinks Freddie’s crazy, but then later, at a critical moment in the story, the backpack launcher turns out to be exactly what Jack needs to save Rapunzel. (I was sad though that there was no picture depicting the actual launch.)
On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised with how enjoyable it was to read a graphic novel. I don’t think it’s going to become my new favorite genre or anything because I’ll still choose words over pictures, but it was not a bad way to spend a few afternoons.
One of the best parts about reading these books was seeing Aaron’s reaction to them. The first afternoon I picked up Rapunzel’s Revenge, he incredulously asked, “You’re going to read that?” When I told him that indeed I was, he got sort of an admiring look about him, like he didn’t know I had it in me to actually pick up something that looked so awesome. Between the two books, he spent many a time looking over my shoulder while badgering me with questions about who certain characters were and what they were doing. There were other times when I looked for the book only to find it stolen and Aaron poring over it. Even if I hadn’t liked the books at all, I still would have been grateful I read them simply because they opened up Aaron’s love of and excitement over books that much more. Until that moment, I don’t think he realized adults were allowed to read “fun” books.