Secrets, Monsters, And Magic Mirrors: Middle School Comics with Bite

I found  Secrets, Monsters, and Magic Mirrorsat the Indy Comics Expo here in Minneapolis, considered at a table staffed by very nice folk before I returned an hour later, this book appealing enough to stick in my memory and have me return with the requisite cash. I’m hovering between three stars and four, the way you do. Not that anyone cares, but I have a lot of problems rating stuff aimed at children, because my enjoyment and theirs are often…not at odds…but not convergent either. 

There’s not a lot here that’s truly surprising, The retellings are pared down and hew closely to the originals. This collection is pretty Hans Christian Andersen-heavy, with three out of the five stories coming from his literary fairy tales – The Snow Queen, The Princess and the Pea, and Thumbelina. Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel round out the collection. I know I’ve made this distinction before, but it’s worth noting: Andersen’s stories are not folk tales like Rapunzel; they are the literate cousin, forged in a single pen, in a single mind. They may afterwards slip their origins and run wild, the way stories do, but there is a single creation point, not the indistinct utterances of nurses and parents through many ages and countries. I’m not sure that matters in assessing these tellings, but I just had to say it. 

So. To the individual stories. 

Rapunzel by Stephanie Peters. I like this version, though it was shyer than I prefer in certain aspects of the tale. Rapunzel is true Märchen, a folk tale with many versions, and there are several ways the witch finds out about the prince’s nightly assignations with Rapunzel. One is that she exclaims to the witch – you are so much heavier than the prince! The other is that she complains that her dress has gotten tight on her belly, which alerts the witch she is pregnant. This went with the first, which is a choice that makes sense, given how young this is aimed, etc. The art is perfect: dusty black and whites cut with bright colors only for effect: the rapunzel, her hair, the hair of her daughter. Everyone had the pin-prick black eyes of a Dave McKean illustration, and I liked the creepifaction. Rapunzel is a sad story in some ways – it starts with lost parents, and never finds them again, except in the most oblique way. This did that justice, though the prince’s lederhosen were slightly distracting. 

Thumbelina by Martin Powell. Coming hard on the heels of Rapunzel, I could see the narrative similarity between the two, but Thumbelina is a weird ass story. It starts with the same baby fever as Rapunzel, Thumbelina’s mom begging the local witch for a child, and then getting one as small as a thumb. Thumbelina ends up on adventures that keep threatening her sexually, which freaks me out a bit, but, let’s face it, Andersen was a weird dude. The art was goofy and fun, and I liked it, and it took the sting out of some upsetting situations. 

Snow White by Martin Powell. I hated the art so much on this one, I could barely appreciate the twist Powell took on the story, one that I thought was cool. Everyone looks like freaking Bratz dolls, however, and that is hard to forgive. Anyway, Snow White’s prince has been enchanted to be the mirror, and his escape from enchantment, and his involvement in the familial psychodrama beyond the usual showing up and kissing aspects were pretty cool. Seriously ugly illustrations though. Blech. 

Beauty and the Beast by Michael Dahl. This one was in the middle, as my son would say. The story felt truncated, and the illustrations reminded me of Second Life avatars, but not really in a bad way. But, like Rapunzel, this story is so often retold, and so varied, that this streamlined version wasn’t a bad addition to the narrative river. (Even though Beauty & The Beast is one of the salon-born literary tales, like Anderson’s work.)  Plus the Beast reminded me of Domo Kun, which I find adorable. 

The Princess and the Pea by Stephanie Peters. This story will never be one of my favorites, but this did the best it could. I’m just never going to love a story of royal exceptionalism, bound up with the concept of the “true princess”. Just, barf. But I liked the Edwardian anime sense of the art, and the comic rapid-dating of the middle section, which is something.

I know I have complained before about not being able to find good comics for the middle-grade set – the library seems to have craploads of Scooby Doo, Jughead, and Scrooge McDuck (why?) and not much else. This collection hits a sweet spot for the kiddies, and my daughter bugged me all day Sunday until I read the whole thing to her, one story at a time. Comics are cool for the pre- or just-literate; they bridge a gap usually filled by tv. So, I’m going with a solid recommendation, ‘specially for kids, just because this was so perfectly pitched for my daughter. Us grown-ups likely won’t be amazed, but amazement has ages like anything else.

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