7/18/11

"Return of the Dapper Men" by Jim McCann and Janet Lee

A fairy by John R Neill
When I was a kid reading L. Frank Baum’s "Wizard of Oz" books, I’d sometimes stop mid-story to look at John R Neill’s drawings of fairies, gnomes and other magical creatures of the land, and get so entranced I’d lose all track of the time. The elegant lines of the dresses of the beautiful fairies, the curlicues embossing the Cowardly Lion, the pretty and mischievous smile of Ozma, the girl ruler, were so expertly rendered I saw them on the page as if they really existed. This sense of wonder and whimsy in the illustrations so perfectly matches Baum’s stories that, even though other artists have had their turn illustrating the Oz stories, in my mind they are as intertwined as a climbing rose and trellis.


In "Return of the Dapper Men," written by Jim McCann and illustrated by Janet Lee, the artists have tried to create a similar work of whimsy, combining a fairy-tale story with lavish artwork, bringing to mind Baum & Neill, the Brothers Grimm, Little Nemo and maybe a touch of William Joyce. The result hovers somewhere between a graphic novel and an extended picture book.

In the land of Anorev, time has stopped. The robots live and work aboveground, while the children play in the dark caves underground. Only two beings can travel between the two realms: the boy Ayden and a robot girl named Zoe.  A robotic villain named Fabre tries to force Zoe to sprout wings and fly to the majestic broken angel that oversees the land on Anorev. Then, time starts again with the arrival of 314 dapper men, wearing bowlers and carrying umbrellas, flying into town.  With their advent, dapper man 41 stirs Ayden, Zoe, and the rest of the beings in Anorev into working toward their destiny.

Dapper Man 41 and Ayden
The artwork is definitely worthy of a modern classic fairy tale.  The characters sprawl over the page, with bits of detail filling the crannies.  The art continuously reminded me of a melding of Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo meets Johnny Gruelle meets William Joyce’s Robots, but was rendered with Lee’s own style, too.  A section at the end of the book explains Lee’s meticulous process in "The Making of a Dapper Page."  In this digital era, it’s amazing to see an artist who, after doing the layout and illustration, then physically cuts out the images to overlay them on abstract painted backgrounds.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as absorbed by the story, which I found whimsical, without being enchanting.  I think the main issue with the story is reflected in the introduction by Tim Gunn that. He proclaims

"’Return of the Dapper Men’ is a transformational experience, a morality tale that is certain to become an instant contemporary classic. The narrative is instantly captivating and always multi-dimensional. The reader will find puzzles, riddles, and anagrams that serve as catalysts for further investigation and research. Be armed with Google and Merriam-Webster.com in order to enjoy the full-tilt experience of this wondrous read."

Frankly, the problem is that the story is both treated too preciously and not seriously enough.  McCann has allusions to September 11th, and to tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet and the drama of Tristan and Isolde, but the characters never seem engaged in the story. There are many wide-eyed proclamations, such as "The only boy to write. That’s why you are up here," and "There’s always time for lessons, especially when you have time."  Occasionally characters appear to talk to the "camera."  Some of the characters seem to be cast as antagonists, but the conflict is all spoken, and never acted on.  The only actual threat to all the characters is that time had stopped, and now it’s starting again, which, I guess, means change? In time of no time, the children and the robots had forgotten how to share work and play, and now they have to move forward.  Even in allegory, I didn’t find the story very compelling.

According to Wikipedia, when Baum was writing the Oz books, his "avowed intentions with the Oz books, and other fairy tales, was to tell such tales as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen told, bringing them up to date by making the characters not stereotypical dwarfs or genies, and by removing both the violence and the moral to which the violence was to point." Although his books were less gruesome than the Brothers Grimm, Baum failed to completely remove the violence.  Even in a land where no one dies, the threat of being cut into small pieces and left there for all eternity struck a chord in my imagination that stayed with me.  Also, the Wicked Witch, the Nome King, and the other antagonists showed enough malice to keep the plot exciting.  I can't same the same about "Dapper Men," which I found beautiful, but not compelling.

It appears that "Return of the Dapper Men" is a series, so perhaps this volume is only the prelude to a larger story.  Given time, we may find out why time stopped in Anorev, and who sent the Dapper Men, and whether Zoe will ever speak and the answer to many more questions. But, while this book has the artwork of a classic, the story was whimsical without wonder, and left me unfulfilled.  "Return of the Dapper Men" was nominated "Best Publication for Teens" for the 2011 Eisner Awards.
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