This review was originally published at sequart.com in 2008.
Children's literature has frequently employed the use of illustrations to entertain their audiences, especially younger kids. Recently, with the increasingly rising wave of comics appearing in bookstores and their overall success, there's a new trend that sees authors better known for their prose dipping into the world of comics. In some cases, that process is an organic one; in others, it feels more like a kind of marketing move. There's a sense of "how do we get kids to read our books" and someone hitting on the idea of "I know, we'll use comics!" as the solution. In this article, we'll examine two new books that take a slightly different spin on this tactic, as they intersperse illustrated text with comics.
The Fog Mound 3: Simon's Dream (Simon & Schuster), by Susan Schade & Jon Buller, is aimed at readers 8-12 years old. It's a testament to the skill of its authors and the overall charm of the project that I was quickly able to understand the story despite not having read the first two books and get wrapped up in its delightful characters. The book alternates between comics and illustrated text on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but even the non-comics chapters are designed so well that that its illustrations flow in and out of the text quite smoothly. The whole process feels organic, as though the needs of the story dictated the transition rather than an arbitrary set of starts and stops dictated by the structure of the book.
The story is set in the future, as a talking chipmunk named Thelonious is trying to protect the Fog Mound, a sort of paradise for the intelligent animals that live on earth after all of the humans mysteriously disappeared. The book is a classic episodic quest, as Thelonious and his friends (including a tiny human scientist named Bill that they brought out of a deep freeze) seek their goal. The team of Schade and Buller manage to create real excitement and wonder as they introduce wolfmen, flying sofas and an explanation of how the world ended. The book introduces a number of green themes (humanity winds up getting wiped out thanks to pollution) without overwhelming the reader or getting too pedantic. The reason the book works so well is that the plot and central mysteries, while engaging, are less important than the vividly designed characters.
On the other hand, popular fantasy novelist G.P. Taylor's series launcher for his Dopple Ganger Chronicles, The First Escape, is a mishmash of good intentions gone wrong. The taglines on the back of the book in praise of his work, "Hotter than Potter" and "The new C.S. Lewis" give away his intent here: a rollicking fish-out-of-water adventure with overtones of faith. The story follows troublemaking orphan teens Saskia and Sadie Dopple and how they were separated, along with their friend Erik Ganger. The story feels very familiar: like Harry Potter, the lead characters are orphans, though the orphanage they grew up in makes the story feel more like Charles Dickens than J.K. Rowling. The Dopple twins are bratty and bossy, and one senses that during the course of the series they will find ways to mature. Taylor skillfully manipulates his larger-than-life characters (including a demented stage magician, shrewish adoptive mother, and assorted greedy thugs) through the story, creating excitement and suspense.
There are two significant problems with this book. First, the characters feel mostly two-dimensional, more caricatures than fleshed-out creations. This is especially true of Erik Ganger, who is remarkably underdeveloped even though he's supposed to be one of the lead protagonists. The more thorny issue is that of its graphic design. The book careens from illustrated text to comics with little rhyme or reason, often in the middle of a chapter. It's jarring and hurts the book's continuity. There's also a highly annoying design choice, wherein the text periodically gets much bigger or stylized in the middle of the page. Obviously meant to be clever and eye-catching, it's instead distracting and silly. The book's press materials note that they were trying for a "manga-style" visual style, and the result is a mess. It's obvious that Taylor was not comfortable writing for comics, leaving most of the work to the artists with his text. However, the storytelling of Daniel Boultwood is bland at best and incoherent at worst, frequently bringing the story to a screeching halt when it should be ramping up. While I'm certainly no expert on manga, the art here feels like a bad combination of manga-like art and modern fantasy illustration, and it's not a mix that worked well. Beyond the fact that the art lacks storytelling clarity, Boultwood has problems with page-to-page and panel-to-panel transitions. That resulted in a lot of the images looking inert on the page. That was especially problematic because these sequences were supposed to be the most exciting in the book; instead, the chase scenes fell flat.
It's clear that this series is designed to be a big best-seller and it has the feel of being put together by committee to maximize its sales impact. Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to sell lots of copies, but the appeal of this book is blighted by its attempt to reach the widest audience possible. Of course, I could be wrong and teens could snap it up like candy, but I'm not sure this book will appeal to its stated demographic of 10-14 year-olds. If Taylor is trying to reach a larger audience by using comics as a sort of bait, I think this idea will backfire because the book lacks the elegance in design of popular manga series. On the other hand, The Fog Mound and its whimsical art will immerse its audience in the world it creates, one where the difference between text and comics is a line that no longer matters.