"Gotham's" Cory Michael Smith Savors the Arrival of the Riddler
The inside flap of this book says that Wood (author of such children’s books as The Napping House and King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub) spent five years working on this adventure story. That acknowledgment makes me feel even more guilty for what I’m about to write.
Into the Volcano just isn’t a very good book. Not by children’s book standards, and not by most graphic novel standards. There are a few striking moments, but some poor choices in plot and character nullify whatever charm those sequences provide rather quickly.
The book involves the adventures of Sumo Pugg and his (fraternal twin?) brother, Duffy. The pair are chucked out of school by their gruff dad and sent to spend some time with their mysterious and highly suspicious aunt and grown-up cousin who live on what I presume to be a fictional facsimile of Hawaii.
Sumo is a bit of a worrier, and it turns out he has a good deal to worry about, as the aunt, Lulu, and the cousin, Come-And-Go, drag the kids along into the heart of a volcano for purposes unknown but which seem very nefarious.
And it’s here, at this point, that my willingness to suspend disbelief came to a crashing halt. Everyone in the book faults Sumo for being such a fraidy-cat, but considering that he could very easily drown, be engulfed by lava or fall to his death at any point — oh, and is constantly being asked to perform tasks that a grown man my age would have trouble with (I’d like to see you grab a flailing rope on the edge of a cliff in the midst of a downpour and tie it to a rock) — he seems like the only sensible person in the entire book to me. After reading this story I wanted to make a citizen’s arrest of all the adults for child endangerment.
And that’s another problem. Most of the characters in Volcano are completely unsympathetic and wooden. By the end of the book (Spoiler!) it seems as though Lulu and Come-And-Go’s motivations aren’t as shady as first thought. But Wood does such a poor job of detailing that transition that they still seem like a bunch of creeps by the final page. (Of course, they could have explained their motivations right away, but that would have robbed the book of its mystery, wouldn’t it?)
Even the Sumo’s mom, a driven volcanologist (shut up, it is too a word) comes off as paranoid and greedy at the expense of her kids and I really don’t think that’s what Wood was going for here. It doesn’t help that his dialogue frequently comes off as stilted and awkward.
When the book works is during the action sequences. When their boat is in danger of capsizing underneath the volcano, or when Sumo has to swim underneath rock in order to save his brother, I get a sense of where Wood was hoping to go with this project. Those pages are taut with tension, and Wood slathers on his paint nicely to convey explosions or the calm of water underneath the surface. His art of the volcano’s interior and it’s environs show a real eye for detail. It’s here he’s at his most assured.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a book of volcano paintings but a trite and muddled story about a boy coming of age by encountering severe peril. I think I would have preferred the former.