Fairy Tale Comics

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Source: Review Copy from First Second.

Expected Publishing Date: 24th September, 2013.

[Goodreads Link]

“Choosing the tales for this book involved the best kind of research: reading as many fairy tales as possible in two months and imagining which ones would make good comics … First Second’s senior editor, Calista Brill, and I wanted a mix that included a lot of Grimm tales, a majority of well-known stories, a good sampling of non-European traditions, and a balance of boy and girl heroes.”

– “Editor’s Note”, Chris Duffy.

I cannot divorce my overall appreciation of this book from the feelings evoked by each of the truly capable storytellers and artists involved here. Rather embarrassingly, I ended up with pages and pages of notes for each story that I was hesitant to defenestrate. Luckily, I didn’t have to! Under the condition of editing these aforementioned pages of sheer crazy, I was allowed to post a review for each work in the collection. I hope you, dear invisible readers, find it useful (or, at the very least, amusing). Do note that it’s still pretty long, so if you’re pressed for time, scroll straight down to the Why You May/May Not Like It section.

I should also probably preface this by saying that I have never studied art. Do forgive my bungling assessments. I am only trying to put words to emotions and thoughts, a feat I am sure you will agree is difficult enough when faced with words, but somehow harder when faced with words and (gorgeous) art.

One final note before we jump into this. I was asked to write a general introduction for this book. Honestly, it does what it says on the tin. Here is what to expect-

  • Fairy tales from all over. (Well, at least they’re not all European.)
  • Comics.
  • A mix of female and male protagonists.
  • Also, cute animal stories.

Now, onwards!

  1. “Sweet Porridge” by Bobby LondonImageBobby London, the all-knowing Google tells me, is a big deal. He made a lot of American underground comix and a myriad of projects for kids, so it makes sense that the art style is reminiscent (to me) of old cartoon strips in newspapers. It adds a sense of nostalgia that I’m sure older readers will appreciate, though at this point I was uncertain as to who the intended audience of this book is. Speaking of, this book could do with an introduction. If not for the kids, think of the librarians! Regarding this particular story, it’s a pleasant enough first comic. It is a fairly simple and kind of silly story (not in a bad way, I assure you!), about a poor family and how their craving for porridge was resolved. I do have to wonder if the choice to place this one first would affect the browsers’/readers’ decision to pick it up …
  2. “The 12 Dancing Princesses” by Emily Carroll:ImageNow, this art style is reminiscent of, well … Emily Carroll! I do so love her art and I fully expected a chilling story to unfold but this is an oddly happy story for her to have chosen. I quite liked this change! The art is beautiful and a nice contrast to London’s style, ensuring that audiences get glimpses of the range of illustrations and stories, from goofy to elegant. My first notes on this one included a spoiler where I triumphantly yell out a twist that I adored. I decided, for the sake of the darling unseen readers, that I shall not reveal the twist in any of the stories. I will, however, mention that there is in fact a TWIST! Hint: Pay attention to how the story frames the female characters. If you have the time, read the “original”!
  3. “Hansel and Gretel” by Gilbert Hernandez:ImageHaving scored an excerpt from Marble Season on Free Comic Book Day, I recognized Hernandez’ simple yet expressive style. (It was a proud moment when I checked the back to see if I had gotten the name right, and I had!) It’s a rather faithful adaptation, but appealing nonetheless. Again, TWIST! This time, make sure to observe the child/adult relationship. At this point, I started to get a sense of the age group that the collection is catering to, especially with the comical depiction of the witch.
  4. “Puss in Boots” by Vanessa DavisImageVanessa Davis has written Make Me A Woman- a book that I have been almost bullied into buying, with no regret whatsoever. Once more, I was faced with a rather distinctive art style. Perhaps, not for everyone, but cartoonish enough (I imagine) to appeal to most kids. I feel like I can point out my favourite aspect of this retelling without having the spoiler-police come after me: the puss in question is never actually referred to as a “puss”, and is mentioned to be a female kitty! Such sass. 🙂
  5.  “Little Red Riding Hood” by Gigi D. G.:ImageMy favourite from the collection and perhaps the best laid out comic, where a flip of the page changes everything. While it isn’t the most radical of adaptations of Little Red that I’ve read (ha ha), it is interesting in its choices of masculine/feminine depictions. Firstly, the wolf has a decidedly triangular/Jacob-esque figure (yeah, that Jacob). So, not only is he anthropomorphized, he is also given a human understanding of what it is to be a really masculine male figure. And then, just as you turn the page from the climactic scene of Little Red screaming her head off, BAM, we have a TWIST! My favourite depiction of a woodcutter ever! I really love how these artists are using their skills as readers and writers to their advantage.
  6. “The Prince and the Tortoise” by Ramona Fradon and Chris Duffy:ImageYet another comic style that I really appreciate. It took me straight back to the hours on Indian trains, rabidly consuming Tinkle comics (yes, they were actually called Tinkle) and waiting desperately for the next station so I could buy another volume. It is also the first choice in the series that is of a non-European source- A Thousand and One Nights. It was, unsurprisingly, one of the 1001 that I had not heard about and I kind of loved it for its simplicity. I could tell that it was tamer than the other Arabian Nights stories that I have encountered, again, in deference to this book’s audience, I suppose. The clever storytelling of the original comes through this adaptation and yes, a small TWIST! that I am going to give away here. The transformation at the end may be a bit clichéd, but is nonetheless a curious one as readers begin to wonder if there was ever a tortoise at all …
  7. “Snow White” by Jaime HernandezImageLet me start off by admitting that Snow White is one of my least favourite stories. Save for Neil Gaiman’s delightfully grotesque “Snow, Glass, Apples”, I have disliked most adaptations – and yet, this one warmed my heart. Again, because of the slight change in the story. No, Snow White doesn’t save herself and no, the wicked queen isn’t very interesting but you simply must to read on for the unlikely rescuer. Also, it is very particularly mentioned that the couple married at an appropriate age and that made me giggle. Charming work from the brother of Gilbert Hernandez, and co-creator of Love and Rockets.
  8. “The Boy Who Drew Cats” by Luke Pearson:ImageAnother personal favourite from the collection, and yet another that I hadn’t heard of before. I like that these kinds of stories are slipped in with the rest of the well-known stories. While it may not have originally been part of Japanese folktales until Hearn’s collection (Pearson’s source), the story is set in Japan and has Buddhist references. The art style has sublime colouring and the characters are quite adorable. Even the goblin-rat isn’t quite so goblin-y, and is more, well, ratty. The artist is best known for his graphic novel Hildafolk, which I am definitely willing to check out after reading this work!
  9. “Rumpelstiltskin” by Brett Helquist:ImageThis art style was so interesting to me. It looked like each panel was sketched in with pencil and hand-coloured with pastels. It’s quite pretty and almost looks like something you would find in a hardbound collection of Grimms’ fairy tales, but works just as well in a comic book format. Unfortunately, this story is basically a replication of the original. Save for the part where ol’ Rumple rips himself in half out of anger, everything is the same. The miller is unpunished for his thoughtless lies, the girl marries the crazy King who had initially imprisoned her and threatened to kill her, she has his baby, and the real hero of the piece- the messenger- is pretty much a secondary character with one appearance. It’s kind of disappointing (to me), that the brilliant artist for Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events didn’t throw in a twist. I guess I just expected more? Still, it is visually stunning, and, let’s face it, Rumpelstiltskin is the lesser known story of the popular lot. I guess it’s worth retelling rather than adapting.
  10. “Rabbit Will Not Help” by Joseph Lambert:ImageBased on a story from the Uncle Remus collection and adapted from Dora Lee Newman’s Bre’r Rabbit tale, this retelling is lovely to behold. The art is strange and charming, the animals are cuddly (even when annoyed), and the dialogue fits the story well. I haven’t read or heard the original and I’m not sure if the dialogue was meant to indicate a cadence or accent to properly situate the origin of the story, but I do not think that young readers will be overly perturbed by this and that older readers would delight in further researching the various sources that led to this lovely adaptation. Also, trickster figures are so amusing! The rabbit’s story could lead to someone researching the Coyote, and then to Anansi, and really it’s only a small step from fairy tales to American Gods, am I right?! Okay, I may have gotten a bit carried away with that one but I do love stories that linger in your mind for years, as I believe this particular one will.
  11. “Rapunzel” by Raina Telgemeier:ImageAs much as I love and respect Telgemeier’s work, I dreaded reading this one. How different can it be from Tangled? Well, actually, the answer to that one is – a lot. As it turns out, it doesn’t take much to make an awesome female character – the restoration of a girl’s agency can be done in simple, clever ways that avoid tragedy (see also, the original that involves the traumatic birthing of twins), and allows for the release of a nervous sigh and a happy giggle. Everyone who has loved Rapunzel and Tangled will enjoy this one. And even those who didn’t! The last line is a whammy. Look forward to this one! [Tangent time: According to Philip Pullman’s notes on the Grimm’s version of the tale, Rapunzel is a kind of parsley that was a known abortifacient. An odd craving for a pregnant woman to have, don’t you think? I would now like a story on Rapunzel’s mum! Can we please have a young adult Fairy Tale Comics with all the gore and viscera? Please and thank you.] Moving on …
  12. “The Small-Tooth Dog” by Charise Mericle Harper:ImageWow, okay, I have never read this one before and I haven’t heard of Harper’s source either (though I have no doubt that Sidney Oldall Addy is brilliant and wonderful and crazy famous – it’s just that I haven’t read as widely as I would have liked), but this story is like … Taming of the Shrew meets The Beauty and the Beast. I really don’t know what else to say, except that I believe I am more of a dog-person than I realized. Take that in whatever way you will, having read the TWIST! of course. The artwork, as is the norm in this collection, is fantastic. I love that the story happens in layers with each panel’s foreground moving the plot forward and the background art, rather fittingly, adding to the story’s background. Very fun concept and (mostly!) a pleasure to read.
  13. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” by Graham Annabelle:ImageI do so worry for Goldilocks and her lack of impulse control. *sigh* Anyway, I loved this wordless comic take on a classic story. With just images to rely on, Annabelle conveys the humour in this odd tale so very effectively. I especially loved the baby bear’s expression upon finding his broken chair. It’s the simple addition of a vexed line under one eye that drew out the rare laugh/sob from me. Wonderful work of storytelling that will no doubt make kids laugh and adults check the locks at night. Twice.
  14. “Baba Yaga” by Jillian Tamaki:ImageI love, love, LOVE Baba Yaga and I love, love, LOVE Jillian Tamaki. This piece is a match made in heaven. We leave behind the rigid rectangular panels for this one and follow the swoop and swerve of borderless sequential art that befits the tale being told. The story in itself is gripping, but the art adds measures of foreboding and anxiety. The only issue, in my opinion, is that there is too much text, which might be off-putting to some young readers (or even older ones). But honestly, having made the brave choice of a different format, I do not see how the narrative lines could be disposed off. For those who have the will and the curiosity to read on, it is a rewarding experience to find something so peculiar and yet so beautiful at the same time.
  15. “Bremen Town” by Karl Kerschl:ImageAnother lesser known Grimm’s tale takes its place in the spotlight. (Well, lesser known to me, at least. This story’s protagonists have their own statues in Germany so what do I know?) The artwork is pretty rad. Cuter animals have never been drawn. And clearly this is all according to plan because you just have to root for the underdogs, especially since the human characters are less than pleasant in this one. (Note that one of the animals actually is a dog.) The dialogue is minimal and the colours are warm (even in cold, rainy scenes), which is quite suited to the tone of a story about outcasts who finally find their place in the world.
  16. “Give me the Shudders” by David Mazzucchelli:ImageAnother unique art style, especially when considering the palette used- soft, dreamy colours that hint at the close of your reading journey. The penultimate story in this collection revives the Grimm’s quirky storytelling once more. I think I liked this protagonist better having read this particular visual retelling. (Perhaps after reading story after story about bumbling male protagonists, this one didn’t get into my good graces.) Slipped in alongside clever animal stories and sassy princess stories, I feel fond of this boy whose bravery and stupidity I cannot tell apart- all I know is that I like him. A lot may have to do with the fact that the art is just lovely. I went back to read this one twice because the first two times I had just been swept away by the goofy adorableness. Oh, and yes, TWIST!
  17. “Azzolino’s Story Without End” by Craig Thompson:ImageCraig Thompson of the Blankets and Habibi fame did the last (and the shortest) story of the collection. Again, the style is somewhat nostalgic and reminds me of the art used for Fradon and Duffy’s story. It is a simple tale with an “un-ending” of sorts. I imagine if a child is reading this book in one go, starts in the evening and finishes a bit after bedtime, this is probably the most fitting story to read last. The TWIST!, of course, is in the title.

My feeling is that Chris Duffy and First Second have succeeded in introducing a variety of stories and story-telling traditions to a new generation of readers – and I don’t just mean fairy tales and mythologies – I mean, art styles and writing as well. Additionally, I appreciate the inclusion of adapted text sources and links in the editor’s note for further reading. Fairy Tale Comics isn’t just a book meant to please and entertain (though it obviously does so with extravagant ease), it is a place where unfamiliar stories and curious readers bump into each other, stare at one another’s faces and realize that this is what they, each of them, have been looking for – and the adventure continues! I truly hope this team does a second volume of fairy-tales!

Why You May Like This Book: Fairy Tale Comics is all about art and fairytales. If that’s what you love, you’re picking up the right book. It’s best for kids who are slowly picking their way through fairytale and folklore traditions. Or kids who are interested in comics. Or kids who aren’s interested in comics but love fairytales. Or kids who aren’t really kids. You see what I’m getting at, yes?

Why You May Not Like This One: Like I said, art and fairytales above all else … which does mean that sometimes the dialogue/narration isn’t quite as alluring and shiny as the visuals. Also, for those of us who like the chilling and the creepy, this one is lacking. (Albeit for the very good and simple reason of targeting a different age group.)