Thursday, June 7, 2007

Hybrids, Part One

The comics industry has always had to fight against the perception that comics are just “fun” and aren’t “real books.” Nowhere has this been a more entrenched attitude than among teachers and parents – most of us as kids had to hide our comics inside “real” books to read them. A new weapon for fighting this perception is slowly emerging – the prose/comic hybrid.

The idea is fairly simple; alternate prose and comic sections within a book, not using the comics as illustration but as an integral, continuing part of the story. There is enough text that kids are “really reading” according to teachers and parents, but kids are drawn in by the comics, especially those kids who get uncomfortable when they flip through a book and don’t see any pictures.

One of the biggest strengths of this approach is that kids will be more likely to read hybrids in school than comics or graphic novels. For those of you who don’t have kids in school, many districts are using programs like Accelerated Reader where kids must read books at a certain level of text, then take quizzes to receive points. This discourages kids from reading anything that isn’t in the system, and most comics don’t get rated. A hybrid format contains enough straight text to get these books listed, and read, in schools.

The hybrid format is still fairly new, and there aren’t many out there yet, but we’ve managed to track down a handful for review.

Abadazad, written by J.M. DeMatteis, illustrated by Mike Ploog, and colored by Nick Bell (Hyperion)

Abadazad started life as a comic book published by CrossGen. Only three issues were published before the company went under, but what issues they were. Abadazad, in its original comic format, was the best all-ages comic I’ve ever read. It was lush fantasy, ripe with childhood dreams and imaginary history, brought to life by the most kinetic, lyrical, and bewitching art imaginable. Abadazad is the story of Kate, a modern, disillusioned tweenager, who must travel to the land of Abadazad, the imaginary world of a classic book from her childhood, in order to save her younger brother. The layering of book within book and real world upon fantasy world is part of the charm in Abadazad, and DeMatteis’ story reeks classic quality, but Ploog’s art and Bell’s colors are what really sold it.

How good was it? I’ve been told that Disney bought the rights to all of CrossGen’s material solely for Abadazad.

Unfortunately, instead of continuing on with the comic, Disney/Hyperion decided to repackage the material in a new format, a hybrid of text, illustration, and comics. The conceit of the new books is that we are reading Kate’s diary for the first-person narrative (including illustration), some pages from the “original” Abadazad books as background material, with a few comic pages squeezed in between.

I have several problems with the new format. First, there just isn’t enough of what made it great in the first place – comics. I counted 24 pages of comics out of the 144 pages in the first issue; if my calculator is to be trusted, that’s a tad over 16%. Second, the books are just too small. At roughly 8” by 5”, the books just aren’t big enough to do Ploog and Bell’s magnificent work justice. And because of the page frame that is supposed to look like we’re reading a book within a book, the comics are even smaller than they could have been. It looks like the pages were photocopied at a reduced percentage and they just don’t hold the same magic as the original at all. In addition, the text in the comic sections is so small that anyone over the age of 40 will have trouble reading it. Not that I’d know that from personal experience or anything.

These complaints aside, Abadazad is still high-quality literature and is recommended for readers of any age. It would make a great read-together book for younger kids and their parents. Abadazad definitely belongs in children’s libraries and could be used to great effect in classrooms – it’s a shining example of great storytelling.

Shelby says: I like that it’s in the form of a diary but she’s talking to you, too. The whole idea of the story is interesting because it’s different from everything else. I just like the idea that Kate goes to another world and the made-up characters in Abadazad are cool because they’re really different from the creatures on earth. The pictures are important because it explains some things that you can’t really do in words. Sometimes in books there are really good descriptions of characters so you can understand what they look like and you don’t need pictures, but in Abadazad it’s like impossible to describe some of them, so the artist has to draw them. The art has got a lot of color and that makes it look really good. Mostly kids who can read and their parents will like it.

Sarah says: I liked Abadazad better as a comic because it was quicker and there was a lot more art, and I like looking at art, especially that art! It is still pretty good as a book and every age will like it unless they can’t pronounce big words like “Abadazad” and “Shelloppers.” It would have been better for younger kids if it was just comic, but now that Abadazad has turned into mostly words, it’s for more mature kids because it’s a little harder to read. It would be good for parents or maybe older brothers and sisters to read to smaller children. So, basically anybody would like this story, even adults.

The Black Belt Club series by Dawn Barnes and Bernard Chang (Scholastic)

I have to admit that I did not read these books all the way through. They’re very obviously aimed at younger kids; the publisher recommends 7 to 12 years old, but I’d put them at about 7 to 9. Written by Dawn Barnes, owner of “the most successful all-children's karate school in the United States,” and illustrated by comic veteran Bernard Chang, these books work for their intended audience. The blending of text and comic is seamless and used effectively – action in comics and exposition in text and illustration. Judging by Sarah’s reaction, the writing could use some work, but The Black Belt Club will certainly find an audience in the second and third grade crowd and will draw in reluctant readers, so the series is definitely recommended for elementary libraries and classrooms.

Sarah says: The first Black Belt Club book was very interesting. It’s about a guy that comes from underground and is trying to destroy the world by making the Tree of Life dead, and four kids from Kids’ Karate World were chosen to save the world by defeating him with karate moves. The second and third books were basically the exact same thing but instead of death it was hate and evil eyes. I didn’t want to read any more because it was just the same thing but in a little bit different way. Here’s the summary for all three stories: There’s a bad guy trying to kill everybody in the world and the kids are trying to stop him and it always ends up really happy at the end in every single one. The comic and book part added together I liked. In the fighting scenes they used the comic and when they’re explaining what’s going on they use text and some pictures. They used it well and the parts that were comic made sense and fit right into the story. I think these books are for kids about second grade. Kids that don’t really like to read will enjoy the story and it won’t take them very long to read it so might enjoy it more than a regular book.

The Tizzle Sisters and Erik written by G. P. Taylor, adapted by Tony Lee, and illustrated by Dan Boultwood (Markosia)

I stumbled upon this book in the comic shop in a pile of recently arrived trades and immediately knew Shelby would like it. Written by G.P. Taylor, author of the very successful (in England) Shadowmancer series of young adult novels, The Tizzle Sisters and Erik is a dark, Lemony Snicket-style tale of orphans, intrigue, and action, and it’s very well-written. However, the comic sections, adapted from the original text, while off-beat and energetic, just don’t work for me in this book. My main complaint is that the tone of the story changes so drastically from prose to comic. The text portions of the story are written in a rich, erudite British style, while the comic dialogue sounds simple and American in comparison. When I read the prose sections, my mind conjures dark, haunting images – a mood captured very well in the cover art by Cliff Wright (of Harry Potter illustration fame) – but the interior art has a much more modern, indie-edgy sensibility. Most of the time the comics blend seamlessly with the text, picking up the next line, as it were, and are used to good effect in action sequences, but I actually found myself wishing that I could read the original prose sections that the comics were adapted from.

The Tizzle Sisters and Erik would have been just as good (maybe even better) without the comic bits, but then the book wouldn’t draw attention for being an “ILLUSTRONOVELLA,” the term publisher Markosia is using to promote the book. I think some kids will be more likely to pick this up off the shelf because it contains comics, and overall it’s still a rollicking good story. It is dark and there is a lot of violence, though much of it is implied, but kids who like Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter will most likely dig this – Shelby loved it. Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Shelby says: This book is sort of violent for kids 10 and under because there is a lot of shooting and stuff like that. I personally don’t think anyone who is faint hearted will like it very much. The idea of the two sisters being almost the same is very cool. The art is very mod. It’s really cool! Personally, I think the text part of the book is better than the comic part. It seems that the text is more descriptive than the pictures and words. This book is for certain people. Like the ones who like a bit of violence, cool art, and text mixed with comic.


At June 8, 2007 at 1:40 AM , Anonymous GP Taylor said...

HI Guys,

thanks for the review. I fully agree with what you say about the pictures. I have just sold the book to a major Anercian publisher who also agrees with what you are saying. Erik and The Tizzles will be out in the fall. It was kind of you to read my stuff. Shadowmancer was a New York Times best seller - so hoping to put a comic book at the top this year - with your help. Send me your address and I will send you some stuff.

GP Taylor


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