After an extended hiatus, "Better Read" is back with a double-helping for those hungry for new reading ideas outside the Spider-Man space. In honor of the recent elections in both the U.S.A. and New Zealand, let's see how the voting goes between two different candidates. As in most elections, our choices have much in common, but as we'll see, there's also some significant differences between them.
Both of our graphic novels are small-format, book-sized rather than comic-sized. Both are written and self-illustrated by a single, independent creator, and sell in paperback for around $10 on Amazon, and both are book one of a series. Both are "modern magical" stories - i.e. the protagonists in both cases are people from our modern world who encounter super-natural or other-worldly creatures.
There's yet one more thing they have in common. Both tales are started in earnest by the same event - the bequeathing of a rural property by a grandfather. However, those similarities actually turn out to be pretty superficial. Let's dig a little deeper.
Soft cover, 6" x 9", 96 pages. Boneyard begins a series which is up to number six by now. Originally created in black and white in 2002, volume one has been retroactively colored and re-released in 2005. Richard Moore has created several other graphic novels, but this is probably his best-known mainstream work.
The story centers around Michael Paris, an affable young man who inherits (from his afore-referenced grandfather) a property in the tiny town of Raven's Hollow. Mike drives cross-country to arrange what he imagines is a relatively straight-forward sale of the property, only to find himself the instant focus of attention from the townspeople, and also of the existing residents of the property.
And by "existing residents", I mean the people who live in the graveyard.
Yeah, the inheritance is a graveyard and is home to various hip werewolves, snooty ghosts, sexy creatures from the black lagoon, zoned-out zombies, and Abigail the delicious female vampire who graces the cover. The local citizens aren't too happy about the undead, nearly-dead and should-be-dead characters who populate the local boneyard, and the mayor plans to buy the place off Mike and have it demolished.
Mike however decides to hear both sides of the story, and learns that good and evil in Raven's Hollow are far more complicated than first appearances might indicate.
Well, that's enough for the plot. Let's talk about how the whole thing hangs together.
First, there's the art. It's a sad fact that one-man-band creators tend far too often to be either excellent artists or excellent writers. Yeah, there's the occasional Bill Watterson, Judd Winick, or Tatsuya Ishida. For those over eighteen years of age we might also add Horacio Altuna. But sadly they're exceptions to the rule.
Actually, Richard Moore is very nearly another exception to the rule. His art is plenty good enough to carry the story, and his story-telling is superb. I've seen criticism that Boneyard is a bit predictable, but I'm not going to second that opinion. For my money this is a clever story filled with delightful characterizations. Moore riffs on classic "horror" stereotypes and turns them upside-down.
In summary, I'd give this four and a half webs. Independent creators need supporting, and Richard Moore's Boneyard is a worthy cause. Volume two will be on my shopping list as soon as it's released in color.
Just before moving on, I would mention that Moore is also the creator of some other graphic novels with a more erotic slant. But the moral majority among you don't need to worry a thing about Boneyard - there's nothing here to offend. There's a few moments of bare flesh, but every nipple is covered. Janet Jackson could take lessons.
Soft cover, 6" x 9", 192 pages. Easiest to find in paperback, but also available in hardback and library binding (super-rugged hardback). This is another solo-creator offering, but one pitched at the kids market.
Pre-teen (perhaps teen) children Emily (girl) and Navin (boy) move with their widowed mother to a small country town, in order to live in the large house formerly occupied by their grandfather. Emily finds a powerful amulet, their mother is kidnapped into a distant magical dimension by an ugly tentacled creature, and Emily and Navin need to go rescue her.
They encounter their aged grandfather, who passes on his mantle to Emily. It turns out that their grandfather was a magic/mechanical wizard, who has lived his later life in the strange land (Alledia, an alternate version of Earth) surrounded by the creatures he created - a giant talking pink bunny, a grumpy robot, and ... oh, some other guys.
Emily and Navin spend most of the rest of the book on a hurtling chase to save their mother, traveling by various improbable means including flying machines with X-Box control panels, giant parachute mushrooms, and a walking house.
Well, so much for the story. 192 pages don't go very far, with most of the pages dedicated to wordless chase scenes through contrived chasms, cliff edges, and such like. Character development is pretty superficial, and even though there are twice as many pages as you'll find in Boneyard, it's easy to come out feeling rather unsatisfied.
At first glance, the art appears superior to Boneyard. Richard Moore's art is very strongly inked, and what it gains in clarity, it loses in subtlety. By contrast, Kazu Kibushi's art appears (to my untrained eye) to be painted. The color palette is dark and natural, with great use of shading which adds much more depth.
But after 192 pages, The Amulet's darkly themed "water painted western manga" gloss lost much of its charm, as the trivial nature of the story overwhelmed the initial visual appeal. Despite the frantic action, at the end of it all, I found myself caring very little for the characters. The attempts to try and create interest in the "strange and wonderful" (actually rather grim and two-dimensional) otherworld fall pretty flat. There's nothing particularly endearing about Alledia. This ain't no Narnia, folks.
Perhaps it's not a fair comparison. Amulet is unashamedly written for children (it's published by Scholastic), while Boneyard is for adults. So I offered them both to my thirteen-year-old daughter for a second opinion. She enjoyed them both, but absolutely agreed that Boneyard was far superior as a story.
So as an adult, I'd give "Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper" a middle-of-the-road three webs. The pretty artwork fails to sustain an uninspiring narrative and slightly insipid characters. Perhaps there's a narrow age band where a nine or ten year old reader might enjoy it, but as soon as their horizons start to widen, they're going to be looking for something with a bit more substance.
So may I present to you, the next president of "Better Read". Boneyard!
Hopefully Boneyard won't serve the full term, and we'll see a new issue of "Better Read" in less than four years.