The Dragon Slayer. By Jaime Hernandez. TOON, 2018. Hardcover: ISBN 978-1943145287, $16.95. Softcover: ISBN 978-1943145294, $9.99. 40 pages. A Junior Library Guild Selection.
Jaime Hernandez, one of the world's great cartoonists, is as lively and influential a comic book artist as you could hope to find. He has changed many readers' and artists' lives. His work on the Love and Rockets series (1981-now), in tandem with his brothers Mario and especially Gilbert Hernandez, proved that there was life and juice and relevance in the serial comics magazine, beyond even what many fans of the medium had dared hope. The punk, Latinx, and queer-positive aesthetic of L&R, along with its serious, in-depth storytelling and formal risk-taking, made for a revolution in comics, and Jaime Hernandez has deservedly been called one of the masters of the medium. The Dragon Slayer is not his first comic for children, as he's done a few short pieces for children's anthologies. Nor is it his first comic based on folklore: seek out for example "La Blanca," his version of a ghost story he heard from his mother, which he did for Gilbert's all-ages anthology Measles No. 2 back in 1999 (Gilbert too has made folk and family lore into comics: dig his "La Llorona," from New Love No. 5, back in 1997). Moreover, children and childhood memories are essential to Jaime's work in Love and Rockets. But The Dragon Slayer is Jaime's first real children's book.
As Hernandez told Publishers Weekly's Calvin Reid in an interview published this week,
I have kid [characters] in my adult comics, but they play by my rules. Now that I’m writing for children, I’m playing by their rules. I was a little nervous because now I’m speaking directly to kids and to the parents who will let them read [the book].
So Dragon Slayer is something new for him. In fact it's a quiet collaboration: the book's back matter tells us that Hernandez read through many folktales to find the three that he wanted to adapt, and in this he was commissioned and helped by TOON's editorial director and the book's designer, Françoise Mouly. Mouly's team also deserves mention: in this case, designer Genevieve Bormes, who supplied Aztec and Maya design motifs that enliven the book's endpapers and peritexts, and editor, research assistant, and colorist Ala Lee. Like most books in the TOON Graphics line, Dragon Slayer includes some discreet educational apparatus, in the form of notes and bibliography -- more teamwork. Further, the book comes introduced by prolific scholar and children's author F. Isabel Campoy, whose collaborative book with children's author and teacher educator Alma Flor Ada, Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection (2006), is credited as one of Hernandez's sources. Campoy and Ada are key contributors here. (Another key source, albeit not as clearly announced, is John Bierhorst's 2002 collection Latin American Folktales.) All this is by way of packaging three 10-page comics by Hernandez, which are a delight, and are over too soon. I could read book after book like this from Hernandez -- the premise fits him beautifully.
Hernandez has said that he liked the "wackiness" of these stories, and they do have that absurd-but-perfect, unquestionable quality of many folk tales: a sense of symbolic rightness and fated, almost-inevitable form in spite of the seeming craziness of their plots. Things happen that are preposterous and unexplained but just seem to fit, to click, because of the tales' use of repetition, parallels, rhythmic phrasing, and ritual challenges: stock ingredients, in anything but stock form. These folkloric patterns make the tales complete and rounded no matter how nonsensical they might appear at first. In crisp pages that rarely depart from a standard six-panel grid, Hernandez delivers the stories straight up, without any rationalizing or ironic distance, in clean, classic cartooning that communicates without breaking a sweat. Jaime is a master of seemingly guileless and transparent, but in fact subtle and artful, narrative drawing, and The Dragon Slayer does not disappoint.
This has been billed as a "graphic novel," but it's no more a novel than other splendid TOON books like Birdsong, Flop to the Top, The Shark King, or Lost in NYC. What it is is a charming comic book that whets the appetite for more. Hernandez's cartooning benefits from the book's folkloric and scholarly teamwork, but the main thing is that the comics are marvelous. The title story, a feminist fairy tale with a light touch, focuses on an unfairly disowned youngest daughter who slays monsters and solves problems: a real pip. "Martina Martínez and Pérez the Mouse" (adapted from Ada's text) is an absurd story of marriage between a woman and a mouse, until it becomes a wise fable about panic and grief. "Tup and the Ants" is a lazy-son story in which the (again) youngest child proves his mettle with the help of a hill's worth of hard-working ants. All three comics surprised me and made me laugh out loud.
I could call the book an anthology of lovely moments. It suffers no shortage of arresting moments -- panels that leap out:
But what really makes these panels lovely is that there is no grandstanding in the art, only a terrific economy in visual storytelling: a streamlined delivery that carries us far, fast. Context is everything, and the book is not so much excerptable as endlessly readable.
In short, The Dragon Slayer is a great book for Jaime Hernandez and for TOON, and one of the best folktale and fairy tale-based comics I've seen. I confess myself puzzled by its labeling as a TOON Graphic, which in the TOON system implies an older, more experienced comics reader, as opposed to TOON's Level 1, 2, and 3 books for beginning or emerging readers (I don't see this as a more complex comics-reading experience than, say, some of the Level 3 titles). But I do appreciate the oversized (7¾ x 10 inch) TOON Graphics format, which gives Hernandez a larger space to work in, more like that of a comics magazine. That suits his drawing and pacing. In any case, The Dragon Slayer is a sweet, short burst of smart, loving comics, and comes highly recommended.
PS. A Spanish-language edition, La Matadragones: Cuentos de Latinoamérica, is also available in both hardcover (ISBN 978-1943145300) and softcover (ISBN 978-1943145317), priced as above.
TOON provided a review copy of this book, in its English-language version.
Over the past two weeks, two of my favorite comic shops, Modern Myths in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Meltdown right here in Los Angeles, have announced that they are closing. News like this is becoming increasingly common these days, dovetailing with general news about America’s so-called retail apocalypse. Certainly the news coming out of the direct market, i.e. the specialized comic shop market, in 2017 was quite discouraging (see analysis and opinion here, here, here, and here). I’ve been a loyal direct market customer, and something of a historian of the market, for years (my first book, Alternative Comics, posits a likeness between comic shops and 18th and 19th century lending libraries, and suggests that shops, besides selling, also help to educate their clientele). I’ve seen upticks and downturns, crests and troughs, in the market again and again, and watched a number of beloved shops come and go; there’s always a fierce rate of attrition among comic shops, since the direct market is a bastion of independently-owned small businesses that tend to run on narrow margins. As Dan Gearino notes in his recent book Comic Shop, the direct market suffered in 2015, but bounced back somewhat in 2016 — this sort of dynamic is familiar. But this time, I must admit, things feel particularly dire to me; I worry that there will be no easy bounce-back, that indeed the direct market may indeed be at a discouraging pivot point.
Compounding this threatening downturn in the market, for me, is my own sense of alienation from what actually works in the direct market — a sense of weariness bordering on distaste. The best-selling comic in the direct market for the past few months (Doomsday Clock) is a project I dislike on its face, and, in my mind, confirmation of everything that is lame, inbred, and derivative about current superhero comics, which like it or not are the life’s blood of the DM. Further, there appears a serious disconnect between promisingly progressive books that sometimes move in the mainstream book trade and those comics that actually flourish in the direct market (cue here the ongoing discussion about the diversification, or not, of the DM). There is so much to cherish about comics today — in truth we are in a veritable Golden Age — but this does not seem to be borne out by most of what moves in the DM. As someone who loves comic shops and thinks that the historic and artistic importance of the direct market is still not fully appreciated, this saddens me.
But: the direct market is no longer the be-all and end-all of comics, of course. Comics retailer Brian Hibbs has been tracking and analyzing BookScan sales numbers for the past fifteen years (!), and his most recent analysis, published just last week at The Beat, gives a deep if inevitably partial view of how graphic books are selling outside of the direct market. (BookScan tracks much of the mainstream book trade, per Hibbs: “Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Costco, General Independents, ...Hudson Group, ...Follett Books, ...Powells, ...Sam’s Club and Walmart,” among others, but not comic shops, libraries, schools, and book clubs.) Hibbs charts the Top 750 items as reported by BookScan, and looks at both 2017 and the “long tail,” or deep continuing trends, for specific titles, creators, and publishers. It’s a long, careful piece — Hibbs is careful to note the methodological problems inherent in his analyses, and acknowledges where his data is incomplete — but here’s a couple of the takeaways:
HIBBS: Clearly, the first thing you can’t help but notice is that all twenty of the Top Twenty are books aimed at younger readers – it was just eighteen last year, and fifteen the year before. You have to hit #23 before you reach a book aimed at adults (“Persepolis”), #29 before you hit a book aimed at adults that could be considered DM-driven (“Saga” v7), and a staggering #36 before you reach something that that is a superhero comic (“Batman: The Killing Joke”). [...]
HIBBS: “Kids” comics is absolutely the hottest demographic of the moment, reminding me in any ways of pre-Direct Market times when comics were on the newsstands and the audience was assumed to turn over every several years. One difference between then and now is that when those kids turn over, [Dav] Pilkey and [Raina] Telegemeier and all of the rest of these authors will still be waiting for the next incoming group of kids because these are permanent formats, not transitory ones like periodicals were.”
It was precisely this sense of the growing importance of children’s comics that led me to launch KinderComics. Really, that’s why we’re here.
Now, this is not to say that the young reader's graphic novel market is entirely healthy and represents a future of smooth sailing for children's and young adult comics. That's not the gist of Hibbs's analysis. Sales outside of the direct market in 2017 were not so stellar as to justify unqualified celebration; print publishing in general does not seem so robust. Further, the DM remains an important conduit for much of comics culture in the US and Canada, so I continue to be concerned about its under-performance, persistent neglect of young readers, and increasing irrelevance or self-marginalization. However, Hibbs's report makes clear that the general book trade is where it's at when it comes to book-length comics for younger readers, and there are very strong sellers there. One cautionary sign in Hibbs's analysis is just how much of the Top Twenty (even more than the Top Twenty) consists of works by a few favored authors, such as Pilkey, Telgemeier, and Rachel Renée Russell — a lopsidedness that, I worry, may not bode well for the future.
Still, if further confirmation of the relevance and economic clout of children's comics were needed, I'd say that Hibbs's latest report gives that. This old direct market fan and collector is having to retrain his vision.