Saturday, June 06, 2009

In which I'm reminded about not judging books by their covers

How's that old saying go, regarding books, their covers and judging them? That's supposed to be something you avoid doing, right? I was recently reminded specifically why you're supposed to avoid doing so when I finally got around to reading two graphic novels I had originally dismissed and relegated to a "I'll get to it when I get to it" pile.

You're not supposed to judge books by their covers necessarily because it's unfair to the books (or whatever the book is a metaphor for), but because you might miss out on a great book (or whatever the book is a metaphor for) if you dismiss it too quickly.

In the case of Jill Thompson's Magic Trixie (Harper Collins; 2008), I didn't have any doubts that it was probably a pretty good book. I've long enjoyed Thompson's work, and greatly admired the flexibility in her style, and the way she seems to be able to effortlessly recalibrate it to fit the project she's working on. From the fairly straight, dramatic style she employed in her Sandman work (along with Vince Locke, Thompson is my favorite of the many great Sandman artists), to the looser style used in comedy work like Finals and Scary Godmother, to the manga-style she developed for the Death: At Death's Door and Dead Boy Detectives digests, Thompson's work is almost always recognizably hers, but can look different enough to almost trick one into thinking there are a half-dozen different Jill Thompsons who all share a studio.

I've enjoyed Thompson's Scary Godmother work (at least the comics end of it; I haven't read any of the story books or seen the stage version I understand was developed, and the animation I've seen was pretty poor), which, if you haven't read any of it, is about a normal little girl named Hannah-Marie who meets a witchy fairy godmother like character who looks a little like Jill Thompson. The little girl befriends the title character and her friends and neighbors, including a family of vampires, a slacker werewolf and big, cuddly boogeyman type monster. It's a pretty light-hearted, all-ages series of stories, with humor based around the culture and mores of the friendly horror characters (a lot of Addams Family TV show style puns, riffs on old horror movies). Also, there are a lot of fun recipes to try.

When I first saw Magic Trixie, it was on Matthew Brady's blog (although I didn't read his review until recently as I try not to read reviews of comics until I've read them; go check out his review though, he's got several nice scans of the art) and, honestly, that's the only place I saw anyone writing about it. I guess like a lot of graphic novels published by publishers newer to comics, the comics press and online community may have treated it more like a children's book and ignored it more than they should have...?).

It was by Thompson, it looked like it was about a witch with a punny name, and she had kinky hair like Thompson and Scary Godmother, so I just assumed it was more of the same; or at least a slight variation of the that same.

And then I read it and realized how wrong I was.

There is a witch character, as well as a lot of other variations of monster characters, some of them the same sorts of monsters that appeared in the Scary Godmother works, but they're substantially different; if Thompson is starting with some of the same monsters, she goes in different places with them. Magic Trixie is, of course, a witch, but she's a little girl first, and one that just happens to be a witch. She lives with a whole family of witches—mom, (rather cool and sexy looking) dad, grandparents, baby sister, and older sister or cousin, who is totally hot (there's something for everyone in here!)—and she goes to school with a variety of other monster kids.

It's set in the real world too; this isn't a fantasy, alternate dimension full of monsters or anything, the monster kids just happen to go to a different school than you do. Kinda like a private school, only for mummies and vampires instead of Catholic kids.

The book is quite kid-friendly, although I think it falls rather safely into all-ages category. There's a lot for those of us not in school anymore to glom on to, aside from Thompson's art which, I was happy to note, seems to be again re-calibrated into a different style. Here characters still look like Thompson characters, and the settings are full of her severe lines, sharp corners and ever present curlicues, but the whole thing is rounder, looser and softer. Just look at the cover; the title characters' limbs are boneless, and her talking pet/friend/familiar Scratches looks more like a toy-brought-to-life than a cat. Scratches may be the most abstracted character I've ever seen Thompson draw.

The artwork is all fully-painted, and richly detailed. Magic Trixie's house seems real enough that one could walk around it. If I were to somehow find myself lost in it, I'd be relatively confident I'd be able to find my way out form having read it.

The plot involves Magic Trixie dealing with two conflicts that converge near the climax: She feels she needs to do something dramatic for show and tell at the end of the week to compete with her schoolmates, particularly the mean werewolf girl Loupie Garou and is having trouble thinking of something special enough, while at home she feels her family is getting her new little sister do everything Magic Trixie herself is not allowed to do. The latter is particularly familiar, but Thompson lets the reader into Magic Trixie's point of view of the problem quite well—it does seem unfair.

If you have or know any little kids old enough to read, I imagine this will be right up their alley. And or/if you like fun, imaginative comics and beautiful art, then this will probably be right up yours. Don't make the same mistake I did!

I assume the original book was successful, as a second book, Magic Trixie Sleeps Over was released last October, and a third, Magic Trixie and the Dragon, is due for release at the end of this month.

As for Three Shadows (First Second; 2008), I'm not quite sure why I dismissed it the first time I ran across a copy, floating around a library (Er, the book was floating around the library. I wasn't floating. Actually, the book wasn't floating-floating; I think it was just sitting on a bookshelf). I was unfamiliar with the work of Cyril Pedrosa, but that shouldn't have been a turn off, as even if he was the worst artist in the world, I hadn't seen anything of his to know he was.

I don't think I was aware it was a First Second book either, or I would have been more likely to pick it up; I haven't read everything First Second has published, but I've read a lot of it, and I don't think I've read a single book of theirs that I didn't think was somewhere pretty damn good and great.

I did not care for that cover at all though.

I didn't even notice the two little figures in the background of it until just now actually. Originally all I noticed was a bunch of trees and the dark atmosphere. It certainly conveys the mood of the book, but it didn't really convey the look of it; Pedrosa is an amazing artist, and while covers often can't convey the degree of skill comics artists have, as the medium depends on repeated, sequential images, they can show how good an artist is at drawing and/or designing, and this cover does not do that.

So, while I hate to throw negative words at a publisher whose output I like as much as First Second's, it's got to be done: Lame cover guys, lame cover.

I was in a library I don't normally visit the other day though, and, while checking out their selection of graphic novels, I checked out a bunch of things I hadn't read before, including Three Shadows.

And hell's bells was it good! It definitely would have been a candidate on my best-of list for 2008, if not one of the top-ten.

The plot is a little difficult to talk about without spoiling too much of it, however. There's a small family consisting of a man, his wife and their little son, who live an idyllic life together alone in the woods, secluded from most of the world. One night they're visited by three silent riders who watch them from very far away before disappearing. The three shadows encroach more and more on them, until the parents learn that they are there for their son, and there's nothing they can do to stop them.

The father takes his son and runs, and much of the book involves his attempts save his son from the death the riders represent, asking and engaging questions like how far he'll go to save his son, how far is too far, and how (or if) one can ever recover the loss of a loved one. It's dramatic stuff, and Pedrosa presents it quite dramatically.

Apparently his background is in animation, and it shows; the book reads like extremely elegant storyboards, which have been inked to perfection instead of left loose and scratchy. Some strange turns are taken near the climax, and the point of view shifts from the father to the riders in a way that was somewhat jarring on my first read, but if this is less than a perfect book, it's about as close to a perfect one as anything I've read lately.


Webster Twelb said...

Magic Trixie looks like a good book. I'll take note of that.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Hell yeah, I fucking love Magic Trixie (and I also love inappropriate profanity). Glad somebody else is talking about it. Don't miss out on the second book, and I'm going to be all over the third one.

Three Shadows is great as well, one of my top three comics of 2008 (it's basically tied with Solanin and Swallow Me Whole). Gotta disagree about the cover though; I think it's a great depiction of the mood of the story. Still, it's the inside that counts, and it doesn't disappoint. Gorgeous art, and a heartbreaking story, especially if you're a parent. Pedrosa is an artist that seemed to instantly become one of my favorites; I really want to track down more of his stuff.