Friday, November 20, 2009

Three Takes On Christmas: The Fir Tree, Gift of the Magi, A Kidnapped Santa Claus

Rob reviews a trio of Christmas story adaptations from Harper Collins' itbooks line. Included are L. Frank Baum's A KIDNAPPED SANTA CLAUS (adapted by Alex Robinson); Hans Christian Andersen's THE FIR-TREE (adapated by Lilli' Carre); and O. Henry's THE GIFT OF THE MAGI (adapted by Joel Priddy).

The itbooks line represents another entry of smartly-designed, attractive and intelligently chosen comics for whatever is left of the book market. Each of the three hardbacks is designed to be held by a younger reader (they're about 4.5 x 7.5), with each book totally roughly 60-70 pages each. They're graphic novellas, really, but they perfectly mesh the sensibilities of modern comics publishing with a throwback attempt at drawing kids back to classic literature. The choice for each of the three stories was inspired, with each volume representing a different range of emotions and experiences. What struck me most about each volume was that despite the fact that each artist was adapting someone else's story, the tone of each comic was very much that of the cartoonist, not the writer.

For example, Alex Robinson adapted the obscure L. Frank Baum story, "A Kidnapped Santa Claus". The story itself was very short and sparing on details, so Robinson had to flesh out a number of characters and situations. His tone for this story was absolutely perfect, a blend of humor, action, horror and Christmas sentiment. I'm guessing the publishers chose him because of the tender and funny way he handled a Christmas story back when BOX OFFICE POISON was still coming out in comics form. Robinson thrived with the constraints he found himself faced with here, and I found this a much more satisfying work than his recent TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN, a book I found predictable and maudlin. With A KIDNAPPED SANTA CLAUS and LOWER REGIONS, Robinson seems to have found a niche with off-kilter genre stories filtered through his slice-of-life storytelling interests.

Baum set Robinson up with Santa living in a valley with all sorts of helpful creatures, near the lair of the demons Selfishness, Envy and Hatred. Robinson turned what could have been a tedious fable into something charming, thanks to his lively character design and focus on character interaction. The demons are all jealous of Santa and first try to trick him into renouncing his good ways (with one of the demons disguising himself as Robinson's own self-caricature, which for someone reason he draws as a morbidly obese man), and then later kidnap him when that fails. The reader gets both the usual Santa-related Christmas ephemera in this story and several pages of fairy vs demon battle action. The inclusion of demons, along with Robinson's heavy reliance on blacks, make this an unusual entry as a Christmas story, but that was all part of the fun. This is the frothiest of the three books, which makes sense given that Robinson's art and approach is the most straightforward of the three artists asked to contribute.

The artist who did the most with the least was Joel Priddy, in his adaptation of O.Henry's THE GIFT OF THE MAGI. This story has been told and re-told so many times that its twist ending (a standard O.Henry trick) is not exactly a well-kept secret. Priddy is not a widely known name in comics circles, but I've been a fan of everything he's published, starting with his sole graphic novel, PULPATOON PILGRIMAGE. Priddy is a remarkably fluid, versatile draftsman who can create naturalistic settings and complex color blurring effects but also draw the reader's eye in with character designs that are cartoonishly simple. Clear-line animation is a big inspiration for the visuals of this book, with sharp, angular facial features, exaggerated expressions and the sweeping movements from panel to panel. The simplicity and clarity of the figures contrasts elegantly with the more naturalistically rendered furniture. His use of color in a key sequence pops off the page, especially the way in which he literally unrolls it on to the page when Della takes her hair down and rolls it back up when she ties it up again.

Priddy's narrative voice is also extremely clever, essentially taking the reader on a voyeur's tour of a couple fallen on hard times who sacrifice their most valuable possessions so as to get the perfect Christmas gift for the other. There's a great page where the husband, Jim, first sees his wife's shorn locks and we see four faces from him in sequence, each one trying to express a different level of surprise, shock and bemusement. The next page, where we see Della (dreading that Jim would reject her) coil her body into a ball, is nicely matched against the next page, where she tries to deflect her anxiety by uncoiling herself and cheerfully trying to reassure her husband. Priddy manages to generate a lot of humor out of an otherwise tense moment thanks to his line.

The book as a whole has a light touch despite its slightly maudlin premise and treacly conclusion. Priddy helps the story earn its earnestness with his characters' body language, turning what seemed to be resentment from Jim into the most earnest kind of admiration. After pages of clever visual turns (like fracturing Della's likeness with multiple looks at a very narrow mirror, or "animating" the ways in which their prize possessions would cause the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon to envy them), Priddy goes back to the images of snow and stars against a black sky, reflecting the wisdom of generosity of the protagonists. THE GIFT OF THE MAGI is admirable both for its charming drawing and the ingenious ways in which Priddy solved storytelling problems.

Of the three adaptations, Lilli Carre's THE FIR-TREE feels the most like the sort of story she might have written on her own. Carre manages to trump Priddy with the ingenuity of her design, weaving text and image together in clever ways. There's a brightness to her design that's an effective and ironic contrast to the relentless grimness of the original Hans Christian Andersen story. Carre's work has always had a magical realist element to it, so a story about a tree with thoughts, hopes and dreams was a natural fit. What was different was how much Carre leaned on the original text; her dialogue and written narration is usually considerably more spare than in this book, preferring to let her images tell the story as much as possible. Here, she embraced the fairy-tale narration to its fullest, but found different ways to make that text visually interesting.

Andersen's story had a punishing way of relaying its moral without actually spelling it out ala Aesop: don't wish to become something else so much that you are incapable of enjoying your life now. The fir tree wanted to become bigger and resented animals jumping over it. It grew tired of its forest and wanted to see the world. It longed for a better world, never satisfied with its own. Of course, when it gets chopped down, it immediately starts to regret its stance, but only begins to learn to enjoy the moment once it's too late. The tree's delusional belief that the glory of Christmas day, when its branches were hung with fruit and candles, would be repeated again and again, was painful to the point of being funny. The book continued to pile on as the tree was thrown into an attic for several months, then taken outside, chopped into pieces and thrown onto the fire, sighing in the end that it wished it could have enjoyed itself while it had the chance.

Visually, Carre's biggest success was making a tree an interesting protagonist. The way the tree's branches bent gave it a subtle anthropomorphic quality and a surprising amount of expressiveness. Carre' used a variety of colors for her word balloons that allowed them to mesh with both image and the narrative text on the page, giving the whole book a fluid, sweeping quality. Despite the fact that the book was in reality more illustrated text than "pure" comic book (there were no traditional panels, for example), that integrative strategy prevented the book from having a static quality. The warmth of her images is an interesting contrast to the formal, almost cold nature of the narration and dialogue. At the same time, that distance is an element that's often present in Carre's work, and it was obvious that the effect was deliberate on her part.

Each of the three books was successful on their own terms. The Robinson book was a character-oriented lark with action elements. The Priddy book showed off the artist's cleverness as a cartoonist. The Carre' book fit neatly into her concerns as an artist, displaying yet another narrative approach while staying true to her overall trajectory of explanation. It felt like each artist was given a lot of leeway, within the bounds of story length (each is a graphic novella of about sixty pages in length) and format (the size and general appearance of each book is roughly the same, though the covers of each book are different colors). It's encouraging when a new imprint feels like a lot of thought has gone into it, and this is certainly true of itbooks. I'll be curious to see what they choose to do next with regard to comics, and if they'll move on from adaptations to original stories.

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