Bad Island (Scholastic)

Doug TenNapel’s impeccable art can’t quite overcome a conventional story in his new graphic novel for kids.

 

218 pgs., color; $10.99
(W / A: Doug TenNapel)
 
I had a mixed response to Doug TenNapel’s Ghostopolis: loved the art, hated the sketchy storytelling and none-too-subtle proselytizing. I have a similar feeling about his latest, Bad Island: the art is vivid and imaginative but the storytelling is sloppy, the characters boilerplate, and instead of Creationism, TenNapel is now selling family values and traditional sex roles, both laid on with a trowel. So if that’s what you want your kids to be reading, this is the book for you. If not, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Of course that may be difficult, since kid’s books tend to be both male-centered and highly conventional as far as roles and morals go, and at least Bad Island has some nifty art.
 
There are two parallel stories in Bad Island: one involving a family of four who find themselves marooned on a mysterious island, and a parallel story in some distant universe about a race of giants who are also the home of a much smaller race of human-like creatures who, in a classic symbiotic relationship, live on the giants and operate their battle armor. Of course the two worlds will come together by the end of the story and there are other parallels between them as well. Most importantly, both worlds feature a teenage son (they count years differently in the giant world, but the analogy still holds) rebelling against his father, and both two story arcs conclude with recognition by the key characters that, gosh darn it, there’s nothing more important than family. At such moments, I pine for the relative subtlety of, say, The Wizard of Oz. In case that classic film has receded from your memory, just think about this for a minute: Dorothy’s home (of which there was no place like) did not include anything like a traditional, nuclear family. If it were remade today, she’d probably be furnished with a conventional father and mother instead of Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and the farm hands, and she’d probably never get to go on an adventure at all—instead, some male character would get to go off on his vision quest and she’d be stuck at home waiting for him to come back and marry her.  
 
In Bad Island, we spend most of our time with the human family and they’re straight from central casting. The father is in charge, of course, but is also the butt of some slapstick-style jokes including getting bit on the nose by a snake, an occurrence TenNapel apparently finds so funny he repeats it several times. Mom is pretty much in the background except for a few frames which refer to her being a botanist (I suppose I should be thankful for this much attention to a female character, but really I expect more). There’s a bratty little sister who spends most of her time wailing and being rescued, and the real hero of the story, a boy who starts out as your basic sulky teenager yet manages to save the day more than once and, of course, comes to realize how much he loves/needs his family. That would be a spoiler except that it’s obvious from the first that this is what will happen, and you never feel like the dangers on the island are actually going to threaten the family’s survival.
 
Although most of the story of Bad Island is straight out of the plot-o-matic, the opposite is true of the art. There’s not a bad frame in the book and each of the characters has a distinct graphic identity. The design of the environments of the island and the creatures which live there is inventive yet believable and TenNapel has mastered an art which seems to elude many cartoonists these days: that of drawing frames which convey an understanding of weight and materiality. His characters exist in a universe where the law of gravity applies and this makes it much easier buy into their imaginary world because it works pretty much like our own (space travel and gigantic rock-creatures aside).
 
Scholastic is marketing Bad Island for ages 10+ so I wasn’t expecting The Sound and the Fury, but still it’s much more of a kid-pleaser (particularly if the kid is a boy) than a classic which will appeal to both kids and adults like, say, To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s crying out for adaptation as a video game and/or animated series, either of which could easily prove to be a more natural home for this material: the various story threads could be developed in more detail, the action sequences expanded upon, and you’d still have that great art which is the book’s strongest selling point. | Sarah Boslaugh

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