Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 314 (12/14) -- The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

It's amazing how much a graphic novel suffers from lack of real lettering -- you wouldn't think that carefully-placed, professionally-typeset words in a handsome font could seriously damage the potential of a work, but they do. And when there are some hand-lettered singing and sound effects, as here -- no matter how simple they are or how inadequate that style would have been for the whole graphic novel -- it only makes that lack clearer.

The Storm in the Barn overcomes that flaw -- it's not a fatal problem, ever, but it does tend to make a book look more mechanical and draw the readers' attention to the production and away from the story -- but no story should have to overcome flaws in its presentation, in a perfect world. (This, though, is not a perfect world, and many, many stories do have to overcome flaws in their presentation.) But we can hope that Matt Phelan will investigate the state-of-the-art in comics lettering the next time he wants to create a graphic novel. More seriously, The Storm in the Barn is an essentially fabulist story told in an unfantastic, realistic style, which raises some tensions -- it's not a story like Geoff Ryman's Was, that wants to explore that tension, though, so the combination of elements doesn't always feel appropriate.

Jack Clark is an ordinary boy in 1937 Kansas, trying to help his family in any way he can (and there aren't many) as the dust-bowl winds and lack of rain scour his family's farm and the surrounding countryside for the fourth year straight. His older sister Dorothy hides in a curtained bed, reading Oz books, an invalid to dust pneumonia. And the kindly druggist Ernie tells him stories about the exploits of the fable-hero Jack, and tries to keep an eye on him when the other local boys bully him. But Jack is a quiet and withdrawn boy, and the local doctor mutters about "dust dementia" when Jack talks about seeing something odd in a nearby barn, empty since its owners left for California. Of course Jack did see something, and that something is vitally important -- not just for Jack himself, and his family, but for all of Kansas and (by implication) for the entire Dust Bowl USA. And Jack is the one who will have to make it all better.

Phelan uses soft, dusty lines and watercolors -- there's some ink on his pages, but the pencils stand out more, with their soft edges and smudged contours -- to depict this battered, unhappy landscape, and the dust nearly rolls off the pages, out from Phelan's many soft-edged panels. But he tends to throw in more of those soft-edged square panels to show action and tenseness, which doesn't entirely work to his benefit -- his pages work much better when he allows his panels to sprawl some more, taking up more space and revealing more of the bleak Kansas landscape.

The Storm in the Barn isn't perfect, but it's an accomplished and evocative first graphic novel, with a lot of atmosphere and a quietly compelling hero. Phelan has illustrated a lot of books for young readers before, but this is the first time he's turned his pictures into a graphic novel -- and it shouldn't be the last time.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

1 comment:

RobB said...

I agree about the lettering element of a comic/graphic novel. It is an important element. John Workman's lettering on Simonson's THOR run from the 80s is a terrific example and a more modern example is Todd Klein. It seems a lot of modern letterers are trying to model what they do after Klein. Let's put it this way, if I see Todd Klein as the letterer, I get the feeling the story will be pretty good.

Post a Comment