Reviews: Bluebard, a Feminist Fairytale

Bluebeard: a Feminist Fairy Tale,
Metaphrog,
Papercutz

I’ve adored Glasgow duo Metaphrog’s work for many years now – their wonderful Louis graphic novels always entranced me, with a subtle mixture of the child-like innocence and deeper layers of darkness behind that bright world, that rewarded multiple readings. I think that aspect of their storytelling has paid off handsomely in their output for Papercutz, with the previous books The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid. Both presented magical worlds, enchantment and wonder, complimented by Sandra’s beautiful artwork (please, do go and take a look at the Little Mermaid in particular, the art is gorgeous), but the storytelling never shies away from the menace and darkness that lurk within those tales. Our collective imagination of fairy tales have always carried these dark elements – they were, after all, as much cautionary tales as they were entertainment, and Metaphrog’s approach has been perfectly suited to this.

I’m sure most readers will be familiar with the idea of Bluebeard – the mysterious, intimidating wealthy lord of a large castle, who plucks a young, innocent maiden from her simple but loving family life in the poor village to be his wife. Or at least his latest wife – the castle walls are adorned with portraits of a number of women, previous wives. What happened to all of them? Even for adults, familiar with the story, there is still a compulsion to see it retold, to experience that combination of wonder and chills (for the wondrous often comes with a dark shadow, to dare wonder is often to also court terror), something rewarding about revisiting it again – and that is one of the hallmarks of many fairy tales, that they are infinitely re-readable, adaptable, giving new meanings at different stages in our lives and experiences.

For the younger readers, who this is principally aimed at, it may, of course, all be new, their first time entering Bluebeard’s richly adorned yet somehow cold and loveless castle. While the main story beats of Bluebeard are all present, Metaphrog take care to introduce the main characters in the village: after a glimpse of the castle, and the deep, dark, menacing forest around it, we see the village, in much warmer, happy tones. There are lovely wee touches throughout – mended sections on house roofs, like patches on an old piece of clothing, hinting at a people who do not have much, but are able to get by, make do and mend, and are content with it because as long as they have those little homes and their families, what else do they really need?

Young Eve, the girl who Bluebeard will later claim as his latest wife, receives the most attention here, and I was pleased to see her richly described, and her family and friends around her. In some versions the bride to be is a just a two-dimensional character there to serve the plot, but that would never do for Metaphrog, they are too skilled in storytelling, and besides, there is, as the subtitle “a feminist fairy tale” suggests, a quite deliberate move here to ensure that the female characters are fully developed, not just pawns in a story to be moved around by the men in their life, and it is all the richer for it. This also has the bonus of making the readers much more invested in the characters and their fates, with the relationship between young Eve and her best friend from childhood, Tom, especially touching, a lovely, warm, pure love.

The artwork, as you would expect from previous books, is utterly gorgeous, colour schemes moving from warm tones for the village and family life, to darker hues and menacing shadows for the dark forest around the castle. There are many beautiful details and touches – among the portraits of the former wives, for instance, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to another strong woman, Frida Kahlo – and influences to be spotted and admired, with the use of silhouettes and shadows in some panels putting me in mind of the astonishing work of early film animation wizard Lotte Reiniger., while some of the art, especially characters and their expressions, eyes and so on, hint at an anime influence.

While the younger readers may not get those references, they will still react to the styles, the colours and framing, while it offers these lovely gifts to the adults reading with their children – and this really is a book to share with your children, and then explore some of the themes and the influences (a perfect excuse to introduce them to Reiniger’s animation, much of it available on YouTube, a good diversion during Lockdown! Who knows, it may even inspire some creative art in the young readers). I’ve already paged my way through this twice and I think like previous Metaphrog books it is going to reward repeat readings as there is so much detail and more references to get in Sandra’s artwork, while the strong female characters are inspiring, especially for young girl readers, but it’s good for the young boys to be exposed to strong girl characters too!

Metaphrog’s Bluebeard is pretty much a perfect balance of the wonder and the scarier elements a good fairy story requires, while taking time to enrich the characters and present us with strong female protagonists gives a welcome contemporary aspect while retaining the story’s ages-old nature at its core,and the cautionary, coming of age journey into adulthood elements, while the artwork has pages that adult and younger readers alike will happily lose themselves in. Ideal for younger readers, even better for adults to read with them (and why wouldn’t you? Storytelling with children is one of the nicest shared experiences we can have). Hugely recommended reading for young and the older (but still young in reading heart) alike.

Bluebeard by Metaphrog is published on May 5th – check their Twitter feed where, since they can’t celebrate the book launch in a bookstore or school because of the Lockdown, they are going to have a virtual celebration for the launch day.

Review: Winter’s Tales

Winter’s Tales.

Metaphrog

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Here’s a lovely little piece from Metaphrog, a couple of graphic short tales with a distinctive fairy tale feel about them (indeed the second story, The Little Match Girl, is inspired by the story by the immortal Hans Christian Andersen). The Glass Case takes place only a few moments from where I am sitting as I write, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, where we see a school outing to the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile (well worth a visit). Each of the kids is instructed by their teacher to pick something from one of the displays and draw a sketch of it.

For some reason young Sam feels compelled to sketch an old toy doll called Molly; predictably enough some of the other boys make fun of him for being a ‘sissy’ and picking a ‘girl’s doll’ as his subject. Sam doesn’t seem to care though, he clearly feels drawn to this small toy figure in her museum case. Home life is far from happy and Sam soon finds he is drawn back to the museum to see Molly again, and a strange sort of relationship begins to form.

Given the brevity of the story I won’t ruin it by revealing anything more, save to say it is rather lovely – if also tinged with sadness – and, quite rightly I think, Metaphrog never make it clear what is real, what is fantasy here. Are some of the events actually happening or just the imagination of a lonely young boy’s mind desperately seeking escape to somewhere better? It’s up to the reader to decide when they finish the tale, and that’s how it should be. There are also some lovely scenes – a view of the ancient city from the rooftops captures that magical feel of this old place wonderfully, so much so I will forgive them for getting the geography of the city slightly wrong!

winters-tale-glass-case-metaphrog

In the Little Match Girl the eponymous lassie is on a bitterly cold winter street, shivering in the snow; dusk is falling, she is cold and hungry but frightened to go home as she’s not made a single sale all day and she knows her father will be angry. She desperately wishes for light and warmth, not just the physical attributes of those qualities but the emotional light and warmth which none of us can really do without, least of all a child. It’s one of those stories that is beautifully sad, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, and the art cleverly manages to convey that 19th century Victorian cruel street and the hapless waif upon it while also inferring that actually this isn’t the Bad Old Days when children were left to suffer cold and alone on the uncaring city streets, it may well be today. And given how many children do go hungry or sleep with a pavement for a pillow around the world (an abomination in this century for which the adult world should forever be ashamed) I suspect this is a deliberate device.

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Winter’s Tales is a lovely little item – a small, landscape format limited edition Metaphrog are selling this month. At only £3.50 it would make for a lovely and unique little Yuletide gift for someone, but there are only a couple of hundred, so you better be quick!

Time to Shine,

Metaphrog

Time-to-Shine-Metaphrog

Richard has already blogged a bit about this – it’s an interesting project Metaphrog have done in conjunction with Creative Scotland, as part of a government scheme to encourage younger Scots in the creative arts. I know how busy a schedule Metaphrog’s duo maintains when it comes to library and school visits and workshops where they never fail to get the kids excited about creating their own stories, so I think they were a perfect choice for this subject.

The story follows kids at Greenvale high school, an everyday secondary school where the kids have the usual problems any teen deals with, about discovering who you are, where you fit in (especially when sometimes it feels like you don’t), what you want to do and how to articulate what you feel as all these changes and pressures on your young life build up (and we do put some much weight on young shoulder – hey, you, 13 year old kid, get those grades, pick the correct courses to follow so you can get the correct college course later and then the right career, decide now how the whole rest of your life is meant to be! What a thing we do to kids, sometimes…).

It’s a fairly compact tale but we’re still introduced to the school and a range of characters, teachers and students alike, recognisable types to anyone, the quiet, shy one, the loud annoying older sibling, the ‘bad boys’ who act big and menacing to hide their own worries and insecurities. This isn’t stereotyping though, more, I think, making sure in a short work that these are characters the target audience – secondary school age students – can recognise and empathise with (and that’s no easy task, given secondary covers from around 11 or 12 through to 17 or 18 years of age).

When an idealistic new teacher proposes a school talent show (to the usual sighs from older, more cynical teachers) the kids find themselves being inspired, suddenly realising that they all have talents they can nurture and express, be it on the stage performing or using other skills behind the scenes to make it all happen. Even the ‘bad boys’ get drawn into it eventually when the teacher shows them that their spraycan wizardry can be put to more artistic uses than defacing school buildings.

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The artwork has a very manga feel to it, appropriate enough given that’s a style many younger readers are more familiar with in their comics reading. I took part in a lot of various school shows (some by choice, more than a few I was ‘volunteered’ into doing) and I thought the story caught that atmosphere of excitement mixed with nerves that goes along with doing anything like that, but also that feeling of triumph when it all works and the way that builds confidence in young hearts and minds that they will need as they go on. And that’s really what Metaphrog and this arts project from Creative Scotland are trying to do, to encourage kids to explore their artistic side, to be creative.

I’m sure some old cynics will make the usual chorus of “waste of money” at this project, but they can go and eat their family sized bag of Bah Humbug because not only does engaging younger people’s imaginations and creative sides make them happier and more productive students (a bonus in education) it also, if we want to be pragmatic about it, contributes considerably to our economy – think on the writers, singers, game creators, artists and more we produce who go on to bestride a global stage (and you never know when one kid who is inspired by this may grow up to be a new JK Rowling-like success, do you?). And we know from first hand experience how comics can engage with young minds so successfully, so I am delighted at Creative Scotland asking Metaphrog to use the medium to help inspire a new generation – perhaps in a few years we may even be reviewing some comics from some youngster who picked this up. I do hope so.

The graphic novel is being distributed to school students and is also available through various government agencies, or you can read the online version for free right here.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Louis: Night Salad – enchanting, wonderful new Louis from Metaphrog

Louis: Night Salad

by Metaphrog

I’ve adored Glasgow-based Metaphrog’s Louis books for years and I’ve been really looking forward to their brand new book with their perpetual innocent abroad for months. And I am not disappointed. Night Salad begins with an accident, as Louis is working in his garden he trips and falls while handling some toxic chemical from a container delivered to him by the mysterious people who control the little world he lives and works in. In the spill he notices his pet bird FC’s cage has been knocked over and FC seems sick. Poor Louis is distraught – FC isn’t just a pet, he’s Louis’ companion and friend and the thought of him being sick, especially if the cause is Louis himself during the accident, is more than he can bear.

In his little square house in his little square garden Louis is quite isolated, little contact with others in his peculiar little world and now he finds himself desperate for someone he can ask for advice. He isn’t an expert in birds, he considers, so he needs help from someone, but who? Few people come to him apart from the postman and the strange-garbed figures who delivered the container that caused the accident. The advice machine offers no real help and a letter to his Aunt Alison – who Louis doesn’t really know anything about, but is one of his few points of human contact – seems to be in order, but will she be able to advise him how to help FC? Before he can find a way to help his little friend Louis finds himself growing ill, dizzy, lost. At first it seems an emotional reaction to the thought he caused harm to FC, but soon it is apparent Louis is really ill, collapsing in his garden. As he lies there his troubled mind takes him on an incredible journey. The bulk of the rest of the book is taken up with a delightful fantasy quest, through caverns, deserts and fabulous cities as Louis finds friends to help him as he searches for a cure for FC, the fruit of the Raining Tree.

As with previous Louis books though, the narrative is only a part of the whole; underneath the bright, colourful frames that have an almost child’s picture book joy to them, there is always the distinct feeling of more going on. Who are the chemical-suited figures who drop the container of noxious fluids into Louis’ garden and why must he now use it in his work? Who are his meddling neighbours who spy on him? Just nosy neighbours who like to mess with his life a little or are they part of some larger, hidden mechanisms that rule the odd little homestead where Louis lives? There’s always been a touch of dream logic to Louis books, mixed with an undercurrent that suggests nightmare waters lurk a little deeper than the dream, should you but dive a little further down, in contrast to the child’s book bright imagery. In Night Salad the dream logic is much stronger as the ill Louis goes on his quest during his delirium, part fever dream, part vision quest, even in his sick state his mind desperate to save his little friend.

I won’t spoil the journey and the ending for you, save to say it is wonderfully imaginative, as Louis encounters strange lands and new people who he seeks help from. Sandra’s artwork is always lovely and here she has surpassed herself – some of the scenes, such as Louis setting sail, are simply gorgeous works of comics art, a wonderful child’s vision of a sailing ship for adventure with hints of Hokusai’s Great Wave hinting at the deeper, more troubled waters on which the ship sails (wouldn’t the frame above make a gorgeous print?). The desert town and the underground city with its minarets and colours are fabulous and help to open up the reader to the sheer, child-like pleasure of allowing yourself to sink totally into the world the writer and artist have presented to you, to lose yourself into a magical little realm. I think this is some of Sandra’s loveliest Louis artwork yet, there are pages you find yourself turning back to again and again simply to look at and enjoy. There’s genuine emotion wrung from Louis too – like Charlie Brown he may be a fairly simple looking character, visually, but Sandra and John use their words and little expressions and body language to convey his emotions, especially his terrible fears at the thought of losing FC.

It’s a sweet tale but one with darker undercurrents for the adult reader – a child can enjoy the lovely, colourful graphics and the tale of one friend trying to save another through a magical quest and indeed so can an adult, but to the adult there are subtle little markers of the darker, hidden aspects of Louis’ world. I think perhaps Sandra and John have crafted their best Louis book yet, an utterly gorgeous, colourful, touching fantasy for all ages, with fabulous artwork and colouring and an engaging emotional hook.

And I have to say that the design too is quite lovely – Night Salad is presented in a fine little hardback that sits somewhere between a child’s picture book and a graphic novel in appearance, attractively coloured and with that beautiful art of Louis on his ship, all for under ten pounds – yes, this lovely wee hardback joy comes in at under a tenner. If you are looking for something different, something special and charming for a Christmas present for the reader in your life (or for yourself!) then this has perfect gift written all over it, it’s one of those books that makes you happy just to hold it in your hand – in fact it’s going right into my Best of the Year list.

If you are going to be at Thought Bubble in Leeds this weekend then you can see Sandra and John there and I strongly advise you not only to pick up a copy of Louis but get it signed while you’re there, while art from Night Salad can be seen as part of the That’s Novel exhibition of comics art in the London Print Studio as part of Comica. (NB this review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog in mid November 2010)