Jim Henson's Tale of Sand, the lost screenplay (i.e., it was not made into a film) by the legendary Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, adapted in comics form by Ramon K. Perez, won multiple Eisner Awards this year, including best graphic album, beating out, among other things, Craig Thompson's long-anticipated Habibi. So when Comic Odyssey had a sale, I decided to go buy myself a copy.
This book's a hard one to review, mainly because it's a surrealist story, so it requires a lot of interpretation and interaction on the part of the reader. It's the story of a guy named Mac, who is chosen by a town to cross the desert armed with only six dollars, a record, flowers, a cigarette that he so desperately wants to smoke, a gigantic key, a small key, a stop sign, and a few other things that couldn't possibly be useful...or could they? He's chased by a man named Patch and his girlfriend/lover/partner-in-crime, and along the way runs into all sorts of things: cowboys, Arabs, football players, a lion, a tiny shack that somehow houses a big fancy restaurant, poachers, deathtraps, and soldiers, just to name a few. You'll see things like a cement truck pouring a martini, a wolf howling in the middle of the crescent moon, and sharks in a pool. Throughout this entire ordeal, Mac's two goals—to get to the finish line and to smoke that cigarette—don't change.
Perez employs an entire bag of tricks to keep this mostly silent comic from going too fast as well as to keep it visually interesting. The colors, by Perez and Ian Herring, are varied. They are, at different times, muted, monotone, vibrant, and bright. Sometimes the figures have outlines, and sometimes the artists employ color holds. Regardless, the color choices for each scene are always appropriate for whatever they're meant to convey, and there is a unity to the palette, in spite of the seeming incongruity.
Perez uses a collage technique throughout the book, with panels constantly overlapping each other and borders at times done away with. This technique, combined with the already surreal story, allows Perez to insert some of the pages from Jim Henson's actual screenplay into the story, as seen below. In fact, the actual book starts off with a foreword, with Henson's screenplay in the background, so the book is unique in that the story actually began before its actual starting point.
The typewritten font of the screenplay provides a sharp contrast to the font used in what little dialogue is actually in the story. The font used for dialogue is based off of Henson's actual handwriting, which is kind of cool in its own right, but doesn't take anything away from the story if you didn't know it. Deron Bennett, the letterer, also outdoes himself in a couple of aspects. When the Arabs speak, it's in Arabic, so the lettering reflects that, and when the football players speak, it's in Xs and Os, which is just one of the funniest things I've ever seen, but also if anything, emphasizes the visual nature of the story.
With that, I want to segue into another element of the book: production design. This book won the Eisner for best publication design as well, and it's not hard to see why. It's beautiful! It's a hardback with a gorgeous cover. The inside front cover shows Mac and Patch in front of a camera (I think that's Jim Henson there too. Can anyone confirm?), with Mac reading the script. The next few pages, with the book's frontispiece, use detail from the typewritten screenplay in the background, segueing into the start of the story, which also incorporates the screenplay until the screenplay is in a panel, as part of the story. All of these, including the elastic strap on the back that I don't know the purpose of, combine to make the actual, physical book feel like a genuine artifact. It has to be read this way. It just wouldn't feel the same otherwise. It may be a stretch to say Archaia's putting out the best books right now, but I don't think I'd get much argument if I said that they put out the best-looking books right now. (There's a reason that Mouse Guard from Free Comic Book Day 2012 is going for as much as $15 on eBay.)
And I guess that's the final judgment on the story. Will you like the story? I can't answer that for you. It depends on what kind of reader you are, or what mood you're in. It requires too much interpretation and interaction on the part of the reader for me to make a sweeping statement like that.
But it sure is pretty, it sure has energy, and it sure has heart. And if you appreciate effort, I think you'll very much appreciate Tale of Sand.