Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel, Volume 1 Review (Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell)

One night, a man murders a family with a knife, except for a toddler who manages to escape to a nearby graveyard. There, he is kept safe, named Bod (short for Nobody) and raised by an Addams Family assortment of ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. The story follows his adventures as a 10 year old exploring the graveyard and its curious inhabitants as he learns Important Life Lessons.

I like Neil Gaiman’s comics and short stories but I’ve never really enjoyed his novels in the way a lot of other readers have. American Gods was interminably long, so much so that I ended up abandoning it, while I’ve finished a few of his other novels - Anansi Boys, Stardust, Neverwhere - without really being that impressed with them. This trend continued with the award-winning bestseller, The Graveyard Book, which was much too slow and mundane for my taste so I dropped it after a few chapters.

But I was able to get through P. Craig Russell’s graphic adaptation of Gaiman’s celebrated story which divides up the book into two volumes. And “get through” it is about the best I can say for this book because, though the adaptation features the work of many excellent artists, my problems with the pacing and unremarkable nature of the story itself still persist so I can’t say I loved it - but I did finish this time.

The story is episodic with each chapter drawn by a different artist taking in a different adventure. Bod meets another human girl and the two meet an ancient ghost in the oldest grave. Bod’s protector, the vampire Silas, temporarily leaves him in the care of Miss Lupescu and suddenly a large wolf is seen skulking around the graveyard (d’you think they might be connected!?) before he’s captured by some ghouls and taken to their blighted home of Ghulheim. Later he tries to give a witch’s ghost her own headstone but finds trouble with a pair of shady antiques dealers. The book ends with the living and the dead dancing the Danse Macabre at midnight.

A lot of the stories felt like Enid Blyton-esque tales given the most superficial of “edges” by having the inclusion of gothic horror staples that are nevertheless rendered totally safe. I can see this appealing to younger readers if only for perhaps not having had much experience with occult books - like a primer for Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, etc. - but for older readers like myself, I think the stories are a bit too simplistic to fully engage.

The stories are also strangely uncreative with Gaiman taking bits and pieces of folkloric detail and meshing them with his dreary cast. Details like how “witches” were killed hundreds of years ago, how the Romans buried their dead, and names like Danse Macabre are all fairly well known in a general kind of way, so reading about them here isn’t terribly interesting or revelatory.

The main “character” – a term I use for convenience only - is a blank canvas. Maybe that was Gaiman’s intent, having named him Nobody to perhaps focus on the rest of the seemingly more colourful cast, but unfortunately none of the other characters especially stand out. The vampire is a dull kindly vampire, as is the werewolf, and the ghosts are just ghosts who act like people. There’s no original creation here and no memorable characterisation.

The art is better than the lacklustre narrative and writing. P. Craig Russell leads a talented roster of artists that includes Jill Thompson, Tony Harris, Galen Showman, Kevin Nowlan, Scott Hampton, and Stephen B. Scott, all of whom produce some lovely art.

Curiously though, with the exception of Harris and Hampton’s contributions on the Miss Lupescu/Ghulheim story, the art is almost uniformly similar - a peculiar quality as you’d think the artists would all have different styles. Having seen some of the artists’ previous works, Thompson’s art in particular feels restrained as does Russell’s, perhaps to match the others’ art and lend the book a stable look – again, a very safe approach.

Lovern Kindzierski, the colourist, does fine work, giving the pages a bright, lively quality despite the settings being mostly nocturnal and potentially drab.

In the end, The Graveyard Book, Volume 1 is a self-conscious attempt at being a graphic novel, rather than a comic. In adapting Gaiman’s novel, P. Craig Russell has decided to put as much of the original into his version and as such it loses the energy and pace that a comic can have over a prose novel.

A lot of the stories could’ve benefitted from a less strenuous adherence to the source material to become its own thing. Russell could’ve trimmed Gaiman’s prose and storytelling to become leaner and allowed for pictures to inform the story rather than relying on words - a bizarre critique to make of an experienced artist who should know this better than anyone. Russell could’ve limited the chapter stories to fit 20 pages and the adaptation could’ve been one volume rather than two.

As it is, The Graveyard Book, Volume 1 succeeds in being slightly less plodding than Gaiman’s sluggish story, and as such is only a decent adaptation when it could’ve been greater if Russell had loosened his grip on the reins and taken some chances. It does have some delightful art though and if you want to read The Graveyard Book, I would definitely recommend the graphic version over the original novel.

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel, Volume 1

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