Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Good Neighbors Book One

Holly Black may be new to comics, but somehow I doubt that her relative inexperience in the medium will be all that much of a detriment to the success of her first original graphic novel, The Good Neighbors Book One: Kin (Graphix).

The success of her prose work, the juvenile fantasy series The Spiderwick Chronicles and young adult fantasy novels like Tithe and Ironside, means she has a built-in, ready-to-read-her audience, and fans among the folks who stock bookstores and libraries.

The artist she’s working with is Ted Naifeh, a highly accomplished cartoonist with all-ages fantasy projects like Polly & The Pirates and Courtney Crumrin (and plenty more) to his name, and the publisher she’s working with is an imprint of Scholastic, one of the newer players in the booming graphic novel industry which has nevertheless internalized one of the better strategies for getting in on the comics game: Hire the best cartoonists (In addition to reprinting Jeff Smith’s Bone, Scholastic has reprinted Scott Morse’s Magic Pickle, and commissioned work from Raina Telgemeir, Chynna Clugston and Dean Haspiel).

It probably doesn’t hurt that Black turns out to be pretty damn good at writing comics, though.

Good Neighbors reads a lot like the immediate post-Neil Gaiman era of Vertigo, and Black doesn’t over-write or over-narrate (nor under-write or under-narrate), trusting Naifeh to tell much of the emotional content of the story through the expressions and body language he draws for the characters.

The protagonist is the rather unlikely-named Rue Silver (Her dad is an English professor and her mom’s a fairy, so perhaps that explains the goofy name), a sixteen-year-old high schooler who enjoys drinking coffee and breaking in to abandoned buildings with her friends.

She’s currently pretty worried about her mother, who has been missing for weeks, and her father, who has shut down in her mother’s absence. Meanwhile, she’s beginning to see things she shouldn’t be able to see, like fairies walking unseen or glamoured/disguised as humans. Is she going crazy?

No, as I’ve already spoiled for you, her mother was a fairy, which gives her the ability to see fairies, and has to do with her mom’s sudden disappearance.

While it’s over 100 pages, Kin is structured more like a comic book than an original graphic novel; there’s no real climax or conclusion, no resolution to the majority of the conflicts. It merely ends with a suspenseful cliffhanger, not unlike the way your average Geoff Johns book might.

Black is definitely in her element with the subject matter, and her knowledge of fairy lore—not the Tinkerbell, “clap if you believe,” butterfly-winged variety, but the sort one encounters in Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth and British folk tradition—is deep, accurate and anchored fairly naturally to the plot.

That plot isn’t terribly inspired, mind you. It’s awfully similar to Jamie McKelvie’s Suburban Glamour in several respects, but not uncomfortably so—the whole alienated teenager who finds she’s really part of a more fantastical reality that intersects with the everyday reality she shares with her readers and that, hey, it’s actually kind of dangerous certainly wasn’t McKelvie’s invention (Although both McKelvie and Black and Naifeh make their teenagers look kinda cool and punk rock; I can’t speak for today’s teens, but in both cases the casts are of the sort someone of my generation might have run into at shows).

When Rue discovers her true heritage, she discovers she has a few fairy powers, and meets some people from her mother’s world, including her scary grandfather, and a cute, conflicted, teenage boy fairy who flirts with her. It’s the sort of story that I would find repulsively tedious experienced in another medium—it’s not hard to imagine this as YA novel, or one of those post-Buffy, Smallville-esque 90210 + Fantasy or Sci-Fi formula shows, something I wouldn’t be able to crack the cover of, or to sit through the pilot for.

But in the comics, where a writer need not explain a strange site (and there’s no limited special effects budget with which to work in), the admixture of fairies and suburban life is easily, even convincingly accomplished. Naifeh need only draw a woman with a goat’s head in a crowd scene, and she looks just as realistic as the “real” people around her; we don’t need Black to spend a paragraph explaining how it looks like something you’d suspect was a hallucination, because we’re seeing it just as the protagonist is.

As I mentioned before, Black is quite well served by her partner here. Naifeh’s made a career of slightly creepy, off-kilter character design, and it’s a pleasure to see him working in a style that is slightly more representative and somewhat harder-edged than his most famous works, which have rather cartoony characters at their center.

Naifeh’s working in black and white, but it’s a highly shaded black and white, full of different tones and shadows, which not only aids the realism of his art, but helps blend the fairies and the humans more effectively.

As accomplished as the book is, it never quite transcends its genre. There’s nothing here that you likely haven’t seen somewhere else (or several somewheres else), and there were one or two elements that struck me as off, including the intended audience (the publisher suggests it for teens, and while I don’t disagree with that assessment, there seemed to be occasional tension in the book, between leaning towards an all-ages audience and leaning toward a grown-up audience) and the uncertainty of setting (A caption in the first panel tells us we’re in generic suburb “West City;” which is apparently some sort of personality-less Anytown U.S.A….the presence of British fairies in a place that isn’t Britain, or at least nearby countries on the continent, always seems somehow wrong to me).

Of course, “transcendental” is hardly the litmus test for whether one should read a comic or not. This is an engaging enough modern fairy-flavored fantasy, full of great art and a story that was compelling enough that I look forward to book two.

And, for what it’s worth, I would have been positively ecstatic about this if I had encountered it when I was a teenager.


Talkin Bout Comics said...

This is funny. I just posted my thoughts on this book too. It was nice seeing your more comprehensive review. I couldn't agree with you more about how crazy I would have gone for this as a teen.

Excellent review, as always.

LurkerWithout said...

I need you to start reviewing bad comics friend. My list of "trades I should buy" is becoming unwieldly and my bank account is looking slim. C'mon man! You're killin' me here...

Caleb said...

I need you to start reviewing bad comics friend. My list of "trades I should buy" is becoming unwieldly and my bank account is looking slim

Sorry; I've got at least two more positive reviews of good comics coming this week. But hey, you could always use your local library! That's actually where I found Good Neighbors...