Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Return of the Dapper Men – Review

This book from Jim McCann and Janet Lee has been promoted heavily for quite some time and now is finally set to hit shelves through the publisher Archaia. It’s an interesting concept, that 314 rather dapper gentlemen fall from the sky to fix some problems in the land of Anorev. Despite the title, this is NOT A SEQUEL, and is actually a charming and brilliant hybrid of comic styles and children’s picture book sensibilities. Hit the jump to find out why this book launching just before Christmas is the best thing to happen to kids in a long time.

Return of the Dapper Men

Written by Jim McCann
Art by Janet Lee
Letters by Dave Lanphear

The first thing you notice about this book is the wondrous art by Janet Lee. It’s not the usual comic style that hits the shelves every month, no, this is something quite different. Much like other visual artists before her, David Mack and Dave McKean pop to mind, she uses a very hands-on approach to every page and she infuses each visual with narrative information as well as swirling emotion. The pages come alive and you’ll be able to spend time slowly looking them over.
The next thing that must be mentioned is the words that match with the art. Jim McCann here sets up a world for children to observe and wonder at. He uses language like a guide and a friend and it carries each page along like a song. He’s talking about a fairy tale-like land. He describes it all like he’s singing a ballad to children. This book might look good, sure, that’s an easy concept to grasp, but it would be nothing without the marriage of the art to the words, may they remain happy ever after.

Our narrative follows Ayden, a boy, and Zoe, a robot girl, who live in the land of Anorev. Everyone in Anorev is eleven years old and time stands still. Nothing is remember, nothing is passed on. The world has stood still and in this vacuum children play and robots work and nothing means anything because it doesn’t get the time to. It’s a great children’s utopia/dystopia hybrid that makes you question what makes things good or bad. This land has aspects of both and thus ceases to be either. It’s a deep lesson to be thrust into.

Then the Dapper Men arrive. Or more aptly, and tellingly put, return. These gentlemen are some strange hybrid of Gene Wilder’s absolutely genius creation of Willy Wonka and a twist on Malcolm McDowell’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange. These might mean something to you, perhaps not, and it doesn’t really matter. These Dapper Men remain who they are, it is what they do that truly serves purpose. But first, they stand, unified, and like a dance, hold position until it is time to start. It’s a great page that draws you in completely.

The Dapper Men have returned to help fix the world. But they won’t just do it themselves and then wander off because then no lesson would be learned. Instead, one of the sartorial gentlemen, who is given the number 41, finds Ayden and talks with him while the others go about their own business. 41 knows Ayden is special because he’s the only one around questioning things. He is different and special, and through him the world will be made anew, fixed.

McCann is dealing in complex life issues and lessons here but he doesn’t ever truly become didactic. He slips wisdom and knowledge into his words much like the greatest children's literature would. He is teaching a generation of children, through this book, about the world much like previous classics did. The fantastical nature of the lesson brings to mind The Phantom Tollbooth and the endearing heart through amazing imagery can also be considered next to Where The Wild Things Are. Two classics that Return of the Dapper Men could easily stand beside, if not scores of others.

As Ayden and 41, often with Zoe in tow, travel through the world we see how things should be. Children should not be limited, confined, or confused. They should have the world at their fingertips, they should understand their destiny, but still be given the marvelous option to choose. Children are constantly given a world created by others and then expected to learn all about it. Then they should manipulate it, change and adapt it, and make it all better. Only to hand it onto the next series of children. If one generation forgets to do this then the entire ball stops rolling. Everything fought so long and hard for comes crashing down.

The Dapper Men do not return to give answers and fix things but rather to inspire thought and promote questions in the knowledge that the children are smart enough, if given enough time, to remember and figure most things out. An inquisitive nature will always trump a winning hand passed down but not understood.

Knowledge implied is a dangerous and unwieldy tool. It can go awry on any number of levels. But knowledge inferred is then in the hands of the new and in the long run that is what is needed. Knowledge in action, not stored away and saved. It must be tinkered with, touched, used, and reused.

There is a great moment towards the end of the book where Ayden and Zoe realise that full potential can only be reached when you push yourself to absolute extremes. No one discovers their greatest ability in the privacy of their own home without any use. The skills don’t manifest themselves unless they need to be used. It is a great lesson and delivered perfectly here. You must dare the world to see what you can do.

In the end, the Dapper Men appear more as parents, or teachers, than deus ex machinas. They don’t sweep in, fix everything, and leave. That doesn’t build sustainability and they know it. Instead, they facilitate growth and help the children explore their questions because asking ten questions leads to more knowledge than knowing one thing.

Ayden learns many lessons and eventually understands the children must become what is lost in the world. They might not replicate it perfectly but they will become each their own approximation of what the world needs. And in that way things can improve and evolve accordingly. Things might be lost, and over time this hurts, but it also heals. Once you know everything ends then you are prepared for anything to end.

Children can learn a lot from this book, but they’ll never feel like they were involved in a lesson. This is the best sort of children’s fiction. It’s fun and it’s completely enveloping and just about any age should enjoy this.

Verdict – Must Read. If there is any child in your life, be they relation, friend, student, then you owe it to yourself to expose that bright absorbent mind to this world and knowledge. They’ll never regret it. This book expands horizons on so many levels and is a joy to read for so many reasons that I can see years of connection being built between any child and this literature. It is exactly the sort of things a growing mind needs to read, as well as adult minds that think they know it all and are stuck in their ways. This is an instant classic in the old school sense of the word. Bring a little dapperness into the world for every boy and girl and things will instantly be better.

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Max Barnard said...

I'm like 90% sure that Janet K Lee did her art for this using wood in some fashion. I can't remember the whole story but it's a method that's so off-beat that it just makes every page a delight to see.

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