Thursday, December 01, 2016

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

You got a kid named Jack. You got some beans. But it don't go the way you expect, see?

(Will he write the whole review in a bad '30s gangster patois? Let's hope not!)

Ben Hatke's new graphic novel Mighty Jack is indeed a partial retelling of a certain well-known folktale -- though this book ends with Jack and his companions heading off to parts unknown in a bean-related way, so it is not the entire story. And, other than the kid being named Jack and the bean-centricity, so far this is pretty divergent from the folktale.

OK, Jack does trade the family car for a box of magic beans at a flea market -- but that's only because his autistic sister Maddy tells him to...even though she never talks. And he plants the various packets of beans outside their house -- but, again, only because Maddy is awake before him the next morning, turning over the soil and wordlessly insisting on doing so. Jack is the sensible one, trying to be as grown up as a kid (of ten or so, I think) can be. The two of them are mostly on their own this summer; their single mother is working two jobs to barely make ends meet, so it's just Jack and Maddy.

Well...and, before long, Lilly. Lilly, the home-schooled maker-kid who Jack keeps seeing out in her front yard doing sword-practice with a dummy. Lilly, who is strong and tough and brave and has a lot of gear that will be really helpful. (For the younger readers Mighty Jack is aimed at, Lilly will just be cool. For people my age, she will be a reminder of all of those otherwise-bland protagonists with suspiciously-useful skills in classic SF -- the kind of guys who get accidentally thrown into 40 AD but luckily are master fencers and experts on the chemical composition of gunpowder.) Lilly quickly realizes something weird and cool is going on at Jack's house, and latches on to it -- not that Jack can't use her help, since he very much can.

Some of the beans grow mischievous plants, and some grow helpful ones -- but all are weird, grow overnight, and seem to have intelligence. And, before long, the three kids learn that "mischievous" is only the half of it.

Eventually there's a large manifestation, and a rampage of destruction, and the use of the one seed packet that should have stayed unused. A path is opened to somewhere else -- and paths are there to be taken.

There will be at least one more book; Jack and Lilly and Maddy have only just gone down that path as the book ends, and we have no idea what lies ahead for them. (Giants, maybe?) So Mighty Jack does not end so much as pause: this may be a problem for some readers. Perhaps particularly smaller ones, who are often not as good at waiting.

But the reason they won't want to wait is that Mighty Jack is n engrossing, colorful, energetic romp from the creator of the Zita the Spacegirl books. Hatke is good at hooking this audience...and, maybe, good at hooking people substantially older than that audience, too. Mighty Jack is the kind of book you buy if you have a kid aged somewhere from five to thirteen (depending on the kid) and then read it yourself first, because it's that good. And if you don't have a kid in that range -- I know I don't, anymore -- you can always just read it yourself first even if there's no one to read it "next."

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