February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Walk on the Weird Side | Graphic Novels

Fantasy and sci-fi tales—with their nuanced world-building, bizarre characters, and intense action—lend themselves perfectly to graphic novels. These recent spring titles use the format to great effect, depicting a range of settings, from a grotesque quarantined zone to an opulent, underwater realm.

Few dare to enter the Spill Zone (First Second, May 2017; Gr 10 Up), formerly known as Poughkeepsie, NY, where dangling corpses, or “meat puppets,” stare with unseeing eyes and apparitions come and go. Addison, the motorcycle-riding protagonist of Scott Westerfeld’s first original graphic novel, regularly ventures to photograph the zone, selling the images to an unknown collector, but she’s no closer than anyone else to figuring out how Po’Town transformed three years ago into the Spill Zone. Was it a nuclear disaster? An alien invasion? All Addison knows is that after the Spill, which traumatized her now-mute younger sister, Lexa, and left them orphans, she must protect her sibling.

As hard-boiled as any noir hero (“People think there’s something hidden in the Spill. Fairies in those wisps of light. They’re wrong…the Spill Zone shows everything. My guess is, hell does, too.”), Addison grapples with a situation spiraling out of control as the client who’s been buying her photos offers her a potentially deadly new assignment. Alex Puvilland’s frenzied illustrations, varying between aptly discordant tones of jaundice yellow, pink, and bright red for the eerie Spill Zone and shadowy black and blue for Addison’s nighttime rides, will have readers reeling. Westerfeld ratchets up the disturbing quotient (from Lexa’s vaguely sinister rag doll, Vespertine, to the wolflike creature that stalks Addison in the zone), weaving a note of horror into this unnerving, gripping sci-fi story.

With Rickety Stitch and the Road to Epoli (Knopf, Jun. 2017; Gr 6 Up), Ben Costa and James Park launch readers into an acid trip of a fantasy novel. In a world where skeletons are silent laborers, chatty minstrel Rickety Stitch stands out. Fragments of a song come to him in his dreams, urging him to travel to Epoli. Yearning to know who he was in his past life, this stranger in an even stranger land seeks answers, lute in hand, accompanied by the Gelatinous Goo, a speechless but sentient cube-shaped creature.

The authors artfully blend genre tropes and archetypes with gross-out humor and references to modern-day life. For instance, Rickety’s stint as a dungeon worker comes to an abrupt end when a suit-wearing CEO—Chief Execution Officer—spouting bureaucratic jargon terminates him for taking “three-hour lunch breaks” and “fraternizing with prisoners.” The result is an archly funny and zany riff on the quest tale. The varied palette (deep hues of blue and purple for a close encounter with a two-headed ogre, psychedelic pinks for whimsical scenes with a magical gnome, faded black-and-white for the skeleton’s haunting dream sequences) animates this world of punky knights errant, beetle-browed pink unicorns, and devious yet lovable imps. Ebullient Rickety is a surprisingly poignant protagonist who becomes melancholy as he realizes what an oddity he is. Readers will eagerly follow this unlikely hero in books to come.

Philip Pullman’s novel The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship (Scholastic/Graphix, May 2017; Gr 7 Up) thrills with time travel, high-seas derring-do, and corporate espionage. In a new take on the ghost ship, the Mary Alice roams the ocean, traveling from century to century and picking up a motley crew along the way. In 2017, Harvard student Danielle and Royal Navy agent Roger are avidly following the ship’s progress—and so is the nefarious Dahlberg Corporation.

At the heart of the enthralling plot is teenager John Blake, the most crucial member of the crew. His scientist father’s brilliant yet dangerous project damned the Mary Alice to its unusual fate. When a young girl named Serena falls overboard while fishing on vacation with her family in Australia and is rescued by the time-traveling vessel, John’s desire to reunite her with her family may put him into the path of the Dahlberg Corporation. Fred Fordham’s artwork deftly varies between intense action and quieter revelations by relying on controlled linework, a versatile palette, and dramatic perspectives. Well paced and absorbing, this first original graphic novel from a master of the fantasy genre will have readers longing to set sail again on the Mary Alice.

In addition to titles with rich new settings, several recent books shed a fresh light on familiar worlds and characters. Melissa Jane Osborne’s The Wendy Project (Papercutz, Jul. 2017; Gr 7 Up) recasts J.M. Barrie’s Wendy Darling as a modern-day teenager struggling with the trauma of an accident. While driving with her younger brothers, John and Michael, Wendy crashes her car into a lake. Though John survives, he’s now mute. Michael’s body is never recovered. He’s presumed dead, but Wendy insists she saw him flying off with another boy. Sent to therapy, Wendy copes with her pain through art, but her confusion only mounts. Does the handsome new boy at school, Eben Peters, have anything to do with Michael’s disappearance, or are Wendy’s fevered imaginings just a way to avoid facing her survivor’s guilt?

Veronica Fish’s illustrations evoke the look of Wendy’s sketchbook. Gauzy and ethereal, the visuals occupy the space between fantasy and reality as Wendy attempts to learn the truth. Adroitly weaving in references to Barrie’s Neverland, Osborne crafts a thought-provoking, poignant look at adolescence, death, and trauma.

Hewing closely to its source material, Metaphrog’s Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (Papercutz, Apr. 2017; Gr 4 Up) is a far cry from the crowd-pleasing Disney version (there are no singing crabs or sea gull sidekicks here). When the title character rescues a prince from drowning and falls for him, she decides to give her voice to a sea witch in exchange for legs—and a chance at love. As in the original, the mermaid experiences intense pain after becoming human (“Each step you will take will be like walking on a long sharp knife, piercing through your body,” warns the sea witch), and the tale ends on a bleak note.

Sumptuous illustrations depict a radiant world under the water and the shimmering land that the mermaid longs for; intense close-ups of the expressive, doe-eyed mermaid infuse this lovely retelling with an exquisite melancholy. This is a lush, haunting work for those who prefer their fairy tales with dark undercurrents.

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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