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Even at this advanced point in the decades-long flowering of the graphic novel, both in public esteem and in mainstream publishers’ plans, David Nytra’s The Secret of the Stone Frog stands out as a remarkable book, one that accomplishes something I don’t remember seeing any other similar work manage.
It’s from Toon Books, editor Francoise Mouly’s imprint of Candlewick Press, which for years now has been producing superior, hardcover kids’ comics for readers of various ages. And at 77 pages, it’s the first to be explicitly labeled a graphic novel.
The story is a traditional one of two children, brother and sister, the latter of whom is on the cusp of adolescence — their parents think Leah is now old enough to get her own room, rather than sharing one with her younger brother Alan — and one night when they go to sleep, they awake in a world that’s similar to the one they know, but with familiar aspects exploded in fantastical directions. The setting, or settings, suggest Victorian England, and Nytra’s artwork suggests classic children’s literature from in and around the same period.
His elaborate and detailed black-and-white art, drawn with a crowquill pen and india ink, resembles that of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Pauline Baynes’ for C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series; although the fine line work and classic-looking subject matter may also suggest to you E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, or Beatrix Potter’s drawings for her many animal tales, or the full-page illustrations that appear in the various Andrew Lang colored fairy books.
While the illustrations in these are generally small and black and white, appearing at the top of a chapter or dotting the prose here and there, Nytra’s comic book takes that style of illustration, and tells his entire story with it. What’s unique about Secret, then, is that it’s that sort of children’s fantasy literature, told exclusively through those sorts of illustrations, without pages and pages of paragraphs getting in the way.
The other, perhaps more obvious, classic work Nytra’s book bears comparison to is, of course, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, starring as it does somnolent children who take their beds with them on their adventure and wake up at the greatest moment of crisis. His protagonists are the only characters who look more inspired by the comics page than a classic book plate, and his fair-haired Alan sports a remarkably Nemo-like bedhead and pair of pajamas.
These figures bear fewer lines and a more abstracted design than the characters they meet and the crosshatched, highly detailed world they move in, somewhat subtly suggesting the contrast between their “real” reality and the dream reality of their adventures, which include meeting a mysterious lady who keeps bees as big as cats; meeting some dandy anthropomorphic lions who keep a stable of gigantic, ride-able bunny rabbits; riding a train full of silent men with the heads of sea creatures from the ocean floor; and, finally, being lost in a nightmarish, fluid city where buildings, carriages and the streets themselves can come to life and/or transform in the most frightening ways and at the most inconvenient times. Or, even more subtly, suggesting a comics narrative visiting the world of classic book illustration.
When Rufus’ parents drop him off to stay with his grandmother in a new real estate development that abuts a big and mysterious forest, he fears he’ll die of boredom — until he explores that forest.
There he meets a girl his age named Penny, and in the hollow of a tree trunk he finds a wooden amulet with the word “Sasquatch” carved in the back. When he puts it around his neck and says the word out loud, thunder peals and he transforms from a human into a Sasquatch! Or, as the series is entitled, a “Bigfoot Boy.” Reading it backward — “Hctauqsas ”— produces another rumble of thunder, and restores him to his human form.
That’s the premise of this new all-ages comics collaboration from two experienced comics creators with a whole shelf full of successful projects to their credit, writer J. Torres (Alison Dare, Power Lunch, Jinx) and artist Faith Erin Hicks (Brain Camp, Friends with Boys, The War at Ellesmere).
Like much of the above-mentioned work, this is all-ages in the best sense of the word. Like the original American comics, it seems made for children — and seemingly owes a debt to Golden Age superheroes like Captain Marvel — but is produced with enough humor, artistry and skill that it should satisfy most adult fans of the medium as well.
Hicks’s art seems a bit simpler here than in some of her other work, perhaps due to the fact that the characters are mostly kids and animals — which, thanks to the power of the Sasquatch amulet, are talking animals, as far as Rufus is concerned — and perhaps due to the fact that it’s colored, so fewer lines are necessary to suggest different colors, shades and textures.
The human characters still look like Hicks’ designs, especially in the eyes and expressions, but even a fan familiar with her work might be forgiven for not instantly recognizing her by her art if shown a random page out of context.
The story ends a little abruptly, with an air of mystery still undispelled — a pack of nasty wolves want the amulet for itself, and goes to great lengths to keep Rufus from getting it — and a new status quo for the characters is suggested in the final panel. That probably has something to do with the “1” on the spine.
The publisher has this listed as a series on their website, so if you like what you see here, you can almost certainly look forward to seeing more of it in the future. And if you like comics, you’re probably going to like this.