Tuesday, November 1

Return of the Dapper Men

written by Jim McCann
illustrated by Janet Lee
Archaia  2010

In a world, where time has stopped, populated by eleven year old children and their robot minders, comes a story of the day the men from space came to repair the damage that had been done long ago...

It would be fun if I could say that this book struck a balance between Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland and the British TV show The Prisoner, because that was my initial sense. Instead, I found myself early on feeling like a rubbernecker craning to make sense from an accident that took place at the corner of Trying Too Hard Avenue and Style Over Substance Lane.

Snark aside, Return of the Dapper Men suffers from an unusual form of a malady I've found in a number of graphic novels with a juvenile theme or aimed at a younger audience; namely, it lacks a coherent, well-plotted storyline with compelling characters who show real growth within the framework of the narrative. This is especially crucial in fantasy or historical stories as the modern reader needs to "buy in" to not only the character's story but the background to the world being built before our eyes. Sadly, what I think happens is that people confuse illustration with world building, and that by setting a futuristic or other-worldly story in a richly rendered place will explain a lot of the missing narrative.

What we are told (and told such a leaden narrative at the beginning) is that Verona, er, Anorev is a land that somehow, at some time, has been plunged into a sort of a temporal hold pattern. Populated by eleven year old children who hide underground and live in a perpetual state of recess, they are a little like Peter Pan's Lost Boys in that they have been away from adults or the influence of society that they all they know is their petty playground ways. Above ground live the robots, seeming caretakers who know little or less about the world they inhabit than the children. Yet among them is a young boy, Ayden, and his robot girl sidekick Zoe who have apparently awakened from some great slumber and begun to ask questions.

Seeming, apparently, somehow at some time... I don't use these vague terms because I am lazy but because these points aren't clearly explained in the story. In fact, Ayden and Zoe have a number of telepathic conversations where we only hear Ayden's side (Zoe is the one robot who never talks out loud) and while we can infer some of what Zoe is saying it is difficult to believe that she or Ayden have made a great leap in their emotional development. It's especially clunky when Ayden says straight out "We're both different now. We have to be. If I can change so can you." Too bad we don't actually get to hear what Zoe says that would convince us of any of this. And to have a character say out loud that they have changed, well, you better have delivered on that to the reader so they aren't left scratching their head going "Really? How?"  Better still, if the characters truly have changed they aren't likely to announce it, and you don't need to tell the reader either.

So much to do, so much yet to come! And yet... what?!
Add to this the Dapper Men, Deco era dandies in their double-breasteds, spats, bowlers and brollies. Out of the sky they fall, deus ex machina, to help kick-start the age of questioning and learning to set the time rolling again. 314 come to the land, one specifically to sacrifice his life and serve as guide for Ayden, the other Dapper Men to roam like silent robots to, I don't know, do a bit of gardening and polish some brass? They have come to fix things, but why so many, and what do the others do, and why, why, why? Why did they leave, only to return? Return from where? Why robots? Why can't Ayden achieve inner growth without their arrival (especially since they don't appear to do much at all to begin with)? What does time have to do with anything? Is this some parable about the loss of innocence, and if so, what besides petty squabbling is lost? What, indeed, is a reader supposed to make of such abstract joylessness as exists in the land of fair Anorev, where we lay our scene?

Lest anyone be confused let me make this clear: deliberately leaving out information, or deciding not to explain the hows and whys of a fictional landscape does not create mystery. It does not provide a window for a reader to fill in their own personalized detail, nor does it make the story profound. It isn't necessary to spoon-feed readers every little detail but they must be guided, grounded in the world of the fictive dream. The only thing being deliberately enigmatic does is announce to the world that your little fiction is, like the emperor's new clothes, naked of some crucial coverage.

Visually, stylistically, the book is lovely to look at.  For a bit at least. There is a layered effect, with the artwork cut out and laid upon painted background that provides chroma and texture, but after a while their effect fails to stand out. Its almost as if all the backgrounds are of the same color value -- as if they'd all register the same color gray if viewed in black and white. If this seems unusually close scrutiny for the illustrations perhaps its because at least when I'm looking at colors I can make some sense of the intended mood. The skies being a blue painted over words presents a thin veiling of what has been lost to the citizens of Anorev, though if that text could have been legible and reference similar stories of children lost in space – Wonderland and Oz and Skull Island – it might have made the images feel more connected to something larger than itself.

I don't know if there's a better, more satisfying story in Return of the Dapper Men that just didn't make itself out, but I do know that when you strip away the illustrations and try to read the story straight it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Simply adding pictures didn't add anything to what wasn't there.
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