Wednesday, April 25

The Hero of Little Street

by Gregory Rogers  
Allen & Unwin, Austrailia 2009
Roaring Brook, US 2012

The Boy, who previously met the Bard and the Bear and battled a Midsummer Knight, takes "readers" on another adventure, this time through the world of Vermeer.

The Boy, out titular hero, is kicking around when a soccer ball appears. One swift kick and the ball lands in a fountain, and the bully boys who were previously playing with the ball are none too happy. They chase the Boy to take refuge in an art museum where he finds himself joined by a dog from one painting, helps a musician in another painting, and is let out into the world of Flemish masters through Vermeer's "Little Street." When his canine companion is taken from him the Boy tracks him down to a basement butchery where hundreds of dogs have been captured and caged. After making a daring escape the Boy and the dogs return to the "real" world where they meet up with the bully boys again. The Boy gets the last laugh as the newly freed dogs chase the bullies down as a favor to their new master, and the Boy continues on to another day and another adventure.  

click image to enlarge
That Rogers does all this without words in a comic-framed format is only half the marvel, his real strength comes in the ability to make the real and the fantasy imaginings slip fluidly in and out. When the dog slips out of Jan Van Eyck "The Arnolfini Wedding" the reader doesn't question it any more than the Boy does, it simply happened and is part of the world. As it is the world Roger's Boy inhabits has the feel of another time and place where time and technology play no part. It adds a sense of timelessness about the whole affair, a story of a boy and a chase and a series of adventures.

And it was while thinking about the story in this light that I realized this is where picture books are more liberal than their wordier counterparts up the literacy line. A picture book has the advantage of being like a short story where there may be a one-up change in the main character's position of predicament from the beginning of the story, but no need for there to be the sort of emotional or plot development necessary for traditional narratives.  I mean, I suppose I could find a three act narrative in The Hero of Little Street – act one: hero chased by bullies; act two: in the museum world; act three: return of the hero triumphant – but in the end it feels more like a cumulative series of adventures in the mode of the Odyssey. Four of five more of these Boy books by Rogers and they could be bundled together into an epic tale of their own.

you probably want to see this bigger, too
The last lingering element that was hard to place was Rogers visual language. It is a comic format but something keeps me from calling it a graphic novel. It isn't simply length, there's something that taps into something I couldn't place for a long time until I studied the poses of the characters, their lines of action while standing still, their contrapposto if you will. One thing computers haven't managed yet is the ability to search for sense connections beyond words, those memory senses of image and smell and touch that can't be entered as a search term. In the end I finally made the connection: Sergio Aragones, the "marginal" artist from MAD magazine whose linguine-legged people and wordless comics are echoed in Rogers' storytelling. The actual influence may not be there at all, but the fluidity of moving through these visual ideas is there, it's a shared vocabulary of images. I think if you know both artists works it's easy to see the connection, even if they are only distant cousins half a world apart.

As a final thought, based on a conversation I had yesterday, one of the great things about picture books like this without words is that it allows "readers" to provide their own dialog, their own interpretation of the story. It's malleable or it can become firmly fixed, but in keeping with the "picture worth a thousand words" Rogers books contain millions of words... but no text.

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