Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: The Secret of the Stone Frog, by David Nytra

David Nytra (a cartoonist I'd not heard of before) has the honor of creating the first "graphic novel" to be published by TOON Books, those purveyors of fine, hardcover comics for kids, edited by Françoise Mouly. TOON has made a solid choice. The Secret of the Stone Frog is a beautiful, beautiful book, a fantasy adventure starring a sister and brother who find themselves lost in a confusing, magical world. Sound familiar? Of course; it's the stuff of so much great children's literature. And while Nytra clearly knows his fantasy tropes and tellers, his tale is nevertheless fresh and inventive.

Older readers will recognize nods to John Tenniel's illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (see especially the large-headed woman who keeps giant bees as pets) and to Winsor McCay's seminal comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (see especially the art nouveau-inspired character design and young Alan's Nemo-esque nightshirt) and many other fantasy favorites. Younger readers will lose themselves in exploring every square inch of the book's hyper-detailed black and white pages, from the ornate corner designs to the amazingly detailed landscapes and architecture. (See the sample pages at the TOON Books website for some examples.)

On their travels the siblings also encounter talking, dandified lions; giant rabbits; deep-sea subway riders; a boistrous huckster; and other equally bizarre characters. But the progression from one to the next follows a dream-like logic that takes you safely (if a bit disorientingly) across the book's eighty pages. And while our heroes eventually find their way home, it's as beautiful as any other place we've just encountered on our readerly journey.

If I have one complaint, though, it's that the book uses typeset text instead of more elegant and expressive hand lettering (or even, as I think their other books do, a typeface made to mimic hand lettering). Nytra's word balloons take non-standard shapes, looking at times to have been rendered almost with french curves; to see them filled with serif text is to experience an aesthetic jolt. Emphasized words are printed in a blocky sans serif typeface, further confusing the visual balance of the page. This is of course a small matter that might very well be of no concern to anyone but me, I realize; still, I found it a jarring misstep in what is otherwise a truly lovely overall package.

I definitely look forward to more work by David Nytra, and to more novel-length books from TOON. I've been a fan of their shorter books of comics from the start, and The Secret of the Stone Frog is a worthy addition to -- and expansion of -- their growing library of classics.

The Secret of the Stone Frog
A TOON Graphic Novel by David Nytra
TOON Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1935179187
ISBN-13: 978-1935179184
80 pages, $14.95