Friday, August 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #236: The Dragon Slayer by Jaime Hernandez

As a first approximation, it's fair to say that anyone who writes more than five books will eventually do one for young readers. OK, we can think of some counterexamples (Henry Miller! Charles Bukowski!) and some people qualify only under the technicality that their books are now taught to teenagers, but it holds up most of the time, which is all you need for a rule of thumb.

This year, Jaime Hernandez, the cartoonist behind one-half of Love and Rockets, provided another datapoint to strengthen that rule of thumb: The Dragon Slayer, a book of retold Latin American folktales. He's been making comics for about forty years now, aimed at adults -- I was just reading a Hernandez book a few days ago with cartoon genitalia and everything -- but this one is not just from a publisher dedicated to comics for kids (Toon Graphics) but even includes contextualizing text features, like those book-report books you hated back whenever you were in school.

It's OK: that stuff is much easier to take if you don't need to write a report on it, adults often even enjoy learning new things -- well, the good kind of adults do -- and the text bits in The Dragon Slayer are both short and interesting. But, still, the whole thing is pretty darn educational. (So keep that in mind if you're a Hernandez fan who hears about it.)

The core of the book are three stories adapted and drawn by Hernandez in what looks like a slightly simpler version of his usual style: "The Dragon Slayer," "Martina Martinez and Perez the Mouse" and "Tup and the Ants." I'm personally fond of the last one, since the moral is that the lazy but smart third son will win out in the end, and I always have a soft spot for lazy protagonists. (The first story has a very vague moral that basically comes down to "be nice and helpful" and the second is the somewhat more specific "it's better to help than to run around being sad about something.")

Up front is an introduction by folklorist F. Isabel Campoy and at the end are four text pages left uncredited -- they don't seem to be in Hernandez's voice, but they could be by him, or by some editorial hand, or by Campoy. (My bet is on the middle choice: that would explain why there's no credit.) That backmatter includes a bibliography, a selection of story-starting phrases suitable for use by a young audience making up their own tales, and some light background on these three folktales and how they relate to Latin America.

Hernandez is always an engaging cartoonist, and his style adapts well to a younger audience. There's none of the bite of his best work here, though: he's not choosing nasty folktales, or ones with a sting in the tail (maybe because the audience for this book is quite young). The Dragon Slayer is deeply nice and respectable, which is something Hernandez hasn't always been with his more personal work -- I missed that, myself, and other Hernandez fans might as well.

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