Captain Long Ears (SLG Publishing)

This debut graphic novel about a boy who escapes to a fantasy world to cope with the loss of his father gets a qualified recommendation.

 

168 pgs. B&W; $12.95
(W / A: Diana Thung)
 
Michael isn’t just any eight-year-old, he’s Captain Long Ears, legendary Space Ninja. With the help of his stuffed anim—er, I mean fellow Space Ninja/purple gorilla Captain Jam, Captain Long Ears searches the cosmos for Captain Big Nose, a fellow spaceman gone missing who looks an awful lot like Michael’s dearly departed dad. When their quest leads them to Space Ninja Headquarters (which looks suspiciously like the Happyland amusement park), Long Ears and Jam stumble across a baby elephant being delivered to the park. Can this “little big nose” lead the pair to the missing Captain Big Nose? Only a mission to rescue the purloined pachyderm will tell.
 
Reading Captain Long Ears, I couldn’t help but be reminded of two other comics that explored the intersection between the real world and the worlds of fantasy/imagination: Sam Kieth’s The Maxx and the “Spaceman Spiff” strips from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.* Just like Spaceman Spiff, the fun of Captain Long Ears comes from discovering the mundane truth behind Michael’s dream world, and that dream world—with its slug sandwiches, fierce minotaurs, and chicken-legged fish monsters—tries hard to compete with Kieth’s Outback in terms of inventiveness. But where Watterson sought a punch line and Kieth sought the depths of his characters’ psyches, Diana Thung tries to show the power of imagination to overcome loss, in this case Michael’s loss of his father and the emotional loss of his mother, who remains buried in her own grief.
 
It’s a delicate balancing act, to tell a story of death and loss in a children’s book and maintain the balance between honesty and age appropriateness, between the fun adventure story that draws kids in and the emotional message you’re trying to convey to those kids, but Thung pretty much nails it. Michael makes for an identifiable and believably precocious hero, and Michael and Jam share a real friendship that makes them easy to root for. Thung’s pages are densely packed both with panels (frequently eight or more per page) and detail, thanks to a fine-line inking style that shows a heavy influence from Taiyo Matsumoto (TekkonKinkreet). But despite the art’s quirkiness and the lack of standard grid layouts, the book is still a breezy read, and both Jam and the fantastical monsters have a cartoony appeal. At times, the vocabulary (“valorous,” “saccharine,” “superficial lout”) might be a little heady for kids actually Michael’s age and there’s a little bit of potty humor, but I have no qualms recommending this story for kids middle school-aged or older.
 
For a debut graphic novel, Captain Long Ears is remarkably assured, so much so that I almost hate to bring up its one major stumble. Thung decided to use the subtle approach regarding the death of Michael’s father, which was undoubtedly the right decision: it makes sense to have Michael refer to his dad as “missing” (it fits seamlessly with his escapist fantasy world), just as it makes sense to not beat the reader over the head with the obvious. But when you decide not to spell something out in plain English, you have to be sure to handle the subject in such a way that, first, your readers make the initial assumption you want them to, and second, that your readers are never left questioning if their initial assumption was incorrect.
 
Case in point, when the police question Michael’s mother after she reports him missing, she says “his dad calls him Captain Long Ears.” The use of present tense for a character thought dead is jarring. A few pages later, things get even more confusing when she says of her husband, “He’s on a long trip.” I like to think of myself as a pretty astute guy, but finding two statements that directly contradicted the assumption that I had held for the first two-thirds of the book ripped me right out of the story. I was left leafing back through the book, searching find clues that I wasn’t supposed to think he was dead that I might have missed (I didn’t find any), then charged through the rest of the book halfway expecting a happy reunion. Spending two full paragraphs berating a book over two sentences may seem like nitpicking, but they so colored my reaction to the entire book—reactions that, upon rereading the book, I’m almost positive Thung didn’t mean for me to have, especially given the way the last 20 pages of the book are executed—that they bear mentioning. If I was this confused as a 31-year-old, I can only imagine that the book’s young target audience (who tend to take what they read much more literally) would almost certainly have that same confusion.
 
That quibble aside, I still highly recommend Captain Long Ears. It’s a chance to see the development of a fascinating and talented new artist, and it offers parents a great forum to explain the concept of death and loss to their children in a tale that’s fun, touching, and imaginative without being overly morose or dumbed down. Given the subject matter, the semi-advanced vocabulary, and the slightly confusing bits mentioned above, it may pay to read the book along with your children. But hey, reading comics to your kids is just good parenting, right? | Jason Green
 
* This AV Club review also compares Captain Long Ears to Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants, which I bring up because (1) it’s completely accurate, and I wish I had thought of it, and (2) it gives me an opportunity to say that I Kill Giants is one of the greatest comics of the last 5 years, and I highly recommend you go buy yourself a copy. You won’t regret it.
 
Click here for more information and a brief preview of Captain Long Ears, courtesy of SLG Publishing.

 

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