Jul 22, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: Moby Dick by Campfire Graphic Novels

I recently got my hands on some books from Campfire Graphic Novels, which is an India-based publisher of comics for younger audiences. They've got some original titles, mythology adaptations (not just limited to Indian mythology), biographical titles (upcoming are Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Ghandi titles), and adaptations of classic literature. They're getting distributed internationally through Random House. I applaud the effort, and we all need more comics for kids out there.

The first comic (that I received, anyway) that's coming out internationally on July 27 is an adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, adapted by Lance Stahlberg and illustrated by Lalit Kumar Singh.

Moby Dick is the story of a whaling crew led by Captain Ahab, a man with an obsession to capture and kill the Moby Dick, the white whale that bit off his leg. It's got a motley cast of characters, such as Ishmael, our narrator, and Queequeg, his "savage" harpooner friend. There's also the first mate, named Starbuck, a name that was probably significantly less funny in 1851 than it is now.

Let's get this out of the way - I have never read Melville's Moby Dick, so don't expect me to talk about whether or not this is a faithful adaptation. I wouldn't know. What I do know is, in the interest of making this literary work accessible to kids, the language was changed for simpler reading, so anyone looking for a faithful language adaptation is looking in the wrong place. This is 84 pages with pictures, and the actual novel is pretty dense and encompasses hundreds of pages with any printing. So this is more in line with those old Classics Illustrated comics, which strives to give you the essential parts of the story as well as the essential lines, while taking liberties with it so it can fit into a more limited number of pages. Speaking from experience, this is a very, very difficult process, and the effort alone should be commended.

Whereas the old Classics Illustrated comics felt overly simplified - anyone reading them knew that they were being dumbed down and that scenes were being omitted - Campfire's Moby Dick is, thankfully, not guilty of any such thing. Stahlberg and Singh understand that the kids of today don't want to be talked down to, or, at the very least, they don't want to know they're being talked down to. The comic reads as a full story; there isn't really much that seems as if it's missing.

Lalit Kumar Singh can stand up to any artist working in the Big Two today. He has a style reminiscent of Andy Kubert, or even, dare I say, early Marc Silvestri. The angular, realistic style expertly captures the dark nature of the story without going so dark as to possibly turn off younger readers. There's enough of an edge to it that sets the mood, as seen in this page when Ishmael and Queequeg are warned about Captain Ahab. That is one well-drawn face:

There may be some stiff shots in the artwork, actions that need exposition so you know what's going on, or expressions that aren't expressed as subtly as one would expect from this art style, but that's to be expected - after all, the novel was written as a novel, that is, with the written word, able to depict the most minute bits of action - or even no action - because the words control everything. But when you translate this into a comic book, you have to be able to depict this in a visual manner, and that can be very challenging, so yeah, sometimes exposition is needed. Look at this sequence when Queequeg tries to convince the Pequod's owners to let him on the boat:

That's not a moment that can be changed; it's a pivotal moment in the book. However, him throwing a harpoon through a tar drop is incredibly difficult to portray. You could do it more fluidly if you had more space, but then in that event, if you did that for every scene that could have used it, Campfire would have had a much, much thicker comic book.

Despite the realistic art style, Singh doesn't go for the subtle expressions you'd expect such a style to depict. Rather, he goes straight for the exaggerated expression, which is perfectly apt for the target audience.

The only real drawback I can possibly come up with regarding this comic book can actually be traced back to the source material instead of it being a fault of the adaptation. For example, Ishmael and Queequeg are very prominent in the first half of the book, with Ishmael being the narrator of the story. Once they board Ahab's ship, however, they pretty much, with a few exceptions, fade into the background. It's easy to spot Queequeg, since he's tattooed all over, but Ishmael just blends into the mass of white men with sideburns. The narration all of a sudden turns omniscient, with Ishmael having the ability to see everyone's motivations and inner thoughts. I thought that maybe this was a drawback in the adaptation - that perhaps, since they didn't have the space and Ahab's story was more important, they chose to omit the less significant Ishmael/Queequeg scenes. But no, the novel is apparently exactly like that.

The coloring is state-of-the-art, and the book is nicely packaged - complete with a "This belongs to _________" label in the inside front cover and pages talking about Herman Melville, sperm whales, and whaling boats for educational purposes. It certainly sets it apart from other comics.

This is a really good comic to give a kid if you want said kid to read comics and maybe get into some literature too. Of course, I'm 27 years old, so maybe we should turn to my 11-year-old nephew, the Comics Cube's Resident Kid, Tristan!

Tristan greatly enjoyed this adaptation, citing the art as very good and the story as very gripping. He had no complaints about the artwork and its clarity, and this is a kid who's growing up on some George Perez comics.

His complaints about the story are the same as mine - Ishmael and Queequeg suddenly disappear - and also, he didn't like the ending (which I'm not going to spoil for anyone who's completely clueless about Moby Dick). Once again, however, those are drawbacks traced back to the source material and not any fault of Campfire's. Even with that, Tristan didn't feel as if he missed any parts of the story. In his mind, he got a full story, and he was happy with that. It captivated him from beginning to end and he even brought the book to school to read.

Perhaps more importantly, when I asked Tristan if reading Campfire's adaptation made it so he wanted to read the original novel, he said yes. So altogether, Campfire does a commendable job of getting kids into both comics and literature.

If you have a kid whom you'd like to get into reading comics, and if you have a kid whom you'd like to get into classic literature, Moby Dick comes highly recommended.


Pól. said...

Every comics blog needs a 'resident kid'. This is a great idea.

Did you ever see the awesome Sienkiewicz adaption of 'Moby Dick'?
I think First Comics published it originally.

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, Pol - getting on the blog is incentive for him to read, which is always a good thing. Wait till he finishes Mouse Guard.

Those are some pretty Sienkewicz pages over there! But I can't help but think, 44 pages? How in the world did he fit it all in?

Unknown said...

Excellent review.

sachin nagar said...

you should review more from this publisher .. their books look promising

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, folks. More are coming!

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