In Jewish tradition, fall represents a new year, which it also does on school calendars. So for this new year juncture, what
better than to contemplate a single book which also takes in the idea of seasons, their passage, and the sometimes-shattering
ways we find ourselves hard into autumn.
Besides, my own summer's end was filled with both a Bar Mitzvah (youngest son) and college departure (eldest) so there wasn't a
ton of reading time. And the book we're discussing is, itself, a book. As in "with lots of prose" in it. Except that the prose
alternates with graphic novel chapters, each, hopefully commenting on the other.
It's a hybrid, it's a comic, it's a YA novel. It's Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castellucci, with illustrations by Nate Powell,
he of Swallow Me Hole and Any Empire fame.
Disclaimer-wise, Cecil's an old friend, one of the founders of the LAYAs -- that group of LA-based Young Adult authors, among
whom I can sometimes number myself, when I am in print, etc. And I've reviewed her comics work here before, notably the Plain
Janes books from DC's late, lamented Minx line, which showed that in an era where fear is used to rationalize maximum
authoritarian control, even making art can be deemed an act of "terrorism."
Of course, in Plain Janes, there's also the whole motif of girls -- young women -- wondering about what compels them toward,
or away, from a certain kind of boy (among other complications in their lives). As with her earlier titles (when we shared
a publisher at Candlewick) like Boy Proof and Beige -- there's
often a character attracted to an outcast or unavailable boy,
who can't understand why, and as someone who is still retroactively trying to figure out all those girls I had crushes on in
high school (and the much smaller number that I dated) -- or rather, what it was that propelled those crushes -- these
characters fascinate me. Of course, with other, even more complicated iterations of the "dating life" behind me -- like
a divorce -- I guess I have lots more reading to do.
Not to be reductionist about the books, but the girl/boy tropes frequently strike me, as a guy reader, like info from the other
side on the whole dating/attraction thing, and indeed, the prose sections of Beasts are, initially, in this same vein,
following a group of girls, particularly sisters Tessa and Lulu, and an initial flowering that takes place over one
particular summer when the carnival comes to town.
Of course, a carnival coming to town is good stuff. Yet the prose half of the book isn't Something Wicked This Way Comes
or The Circus of Dr. Lao, in that it's not about a traveling show upending a town during a visit. Rather, the carnival
is the opening spark of a series of romantic feints, perries, get-togethers and jealousies whose culmination is shocking in
its starkness, and irrevocability.
The "comic half," with terrific character work by Powell, is a set-up almost like Paul Benjanmin's Pantheon High, where the sons
and daughters of Gods and demi-gods from different mythologies attend the same L.A. high school. Here, the kids themselves
are "cursed" with various types of demi-godism, and the Tessa analogue is a young Medusa, with snakes for hair (whom often freely
dispense a lot of bad advice).
Since she's featured on the cover, that's not giving too much away, but I'll also add that she tends to turn to stone -- without
intending to -- those she loves.
She attends a high school where centaurs, mysteriously stand-offish minotaurs, and mermaids are also enrolled, and the graphic
novel pages initially tell a separate parallel story from the prose. Both prose and comic comment, in broad thematic ways, on
each other. Or perhaps the comic chapters are a dark, unfolding dream of Tessa's sparked by the heart-wrenching intersection
of the stories toward the end.
But whereas the fall-out of the prose narrative arc is specific, the culmination of the graphic novel remains more symbolic.
And while both stories head towards a sense of loss, the comic half appears to find its destination there, while the prose
continue toward an emotional coda, hinting at -- if not rebirth -- at least a notion of having survived the storm.
Since you could read either prose or comics separately, as two different "story-going" experiences, is either one, then,
really required for enjoyment of the other? That's a good question, and since we seem to be in the early days, of this
hybrid form, the jury may still be out. On the other hand, given how restless and distracted even reading habits have
become (certainly mine -- anyone else?) in this era of multiple screens, on and off-line reading platforms, etc., perhaps
the real triumph is that you can move between two story-telling formats while still remaining in the same general universe.
As the comic half of the book ended, ceding the end of the tale back to the prose, I wish there had been more of it -- those
sections were briefer, and shorn of much dialogue. This may be exactly as intended, but because that demi-god high school
is so intriguing, I'd love to know more about the world it inhabits, especially since it appears to exist in our world
of "mundanes." How did it get there? What are the elementary schools and colleges like that precede and follow it!? Though
again, if it's but a dream, no such questions are necessary.
Another question might be whether comics fans will be able to find the work easily. Cecil certainly has a solid fan base
in the YA world (augmented by the Plain Janes work on the comics side) and Powell is obviously a rising star in comics,
but the book, published by Roaring Brook may find itself on more YA shelves that comics ones.
Still, the publisher, author and artist are to be applauded for doing a little genre-bending, taking a step toward a
storytelling world (for stories where such things are warranted), where the comics and prose parts of a tale don't even
have to be contained in the same published artifact. The possibilities for eReaders, where work could continue to
unfold after a publication's initial arrival, are also intriguing.
Meanwhile, I am late on both some prose and comics projects of my own, in the works. Perhaps the two don't always
need to be separate?
Happy autumn-ing, and see you in the October country.