Review of the Day: Jellaby by Kean Soo
You ever been in love? I don’t mean the passing fancy of a crush or the slight flutter you feel when you’re fifteen and desperately trying NOT to make eye contact with the object of your affection. I’m talking gut-sucking, heart-churning, complete and utter abstraction, distraction, fractal, fantastic obsession, elation, and absolution. The love that sucks out your breath and leaves you a hollow shaking wreck until you see your beloved again. That kind of love. I don’t get that kind of feeling very often. It takes a special somebody. Someone with big blue eyes, a cute smile, maybe a jagged set of lower canines complemented nicely by a red-striped tail. Someone just like Jellaby. Man, the moment I read a mere three panels of this graphic novel I was a goner. “In love” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I save my adoration for works of children’s fiction that go above and beyond the call of duty and Jellaby is one of those comics that can charm you with the merest sigh or shuffle of the feet. With great art and a story to match, Kean Soo knocks it out of the park with this amazing comic that has successfully made the leap from screen to page.
It wasn’t long ago that Portia and her mother moved to a new town to start their lives over. Portia hasn’t made many friends since then, and she’s just going through the motions in her classes as well. What better time to discover a huge purple monster in the back yard then? Naming the strange mute creature Jellaby, Portia unwittingly enlists the help of fellow student Jason, as they two search for a way to find the their new friend’s true home. Their search may connect to Portia’s missing father, a series of odd dreams she’s been having, and a door that’s miles and miles away. The stakes, it seems, can be high even when you don’t know the rules.
Kean Soo was born in England, raised in Hong Kong, and currently resides in Canada. At a loss to describe what exactly Soo’s style of drawing is I searched through the Web to find some kind of list of his influences. I pretty much came up with nothing, so all I can do is call it like I see it. Soo utilizes clean lines and a color palette of four colors: purple (mostly), red, and orange, and the tiniest spots of green. His kids are all big heads with tiny bodies, much as you’d find in something by Bill Watterson. Actually, in an interview with Newsrama, Soo said that initially there was a definite Calvin and Hobbes influence to his work. “I’d like to think that the characters have since overcome that.” I’d agree. The physical similarities (not to mention the whole possibly-make-believe-character aspect) are there, but Jellaby is its own beast. So to speak.
In the book Understanding Comics, graphic novelist Scott McCloud spends a lot of time talking about how artists working in the comic medium will indicate “invisible ideas”, particularly emotions, by distorting the backgrounds of their characters. Japanese comics in particular are adept at inventing these “expressionistic effects”, which American comics have for the most part ignored. One of the things I loved about Jellaby was that Soo can invent an expressionistic effect like it’s nobody’s business. The first few pages of this book are chock full of them. When Portia is nervous these beautiful but clearly nerve induced purple lines curl and spiral out from her. Not paying attention is indicated by words growing tiny or appearing behind her head where they remain partially obscured. And when Soo wants you to see a scene from Portia’s point of view he keeps most of the scene faint, then brings into sharp focus certain elements or characters. The book is filled with little moments like these. Heck, you could probably design an entire graduate course over Soo’s use of technique and the emotional interplay between image and reader response. Even his sound effects are one-of-a-kind and interesting! Call this man the Canadian Katsuhiro Otomo.
It wasn’t the cool colors or art or even the writing that made me love Jellaby, though. It was the characters. Primarily Jellaby himself, of course. If you’re going to create a gigantic monster friend, then you obviously need to make him a little lovable. Jellaby’s a pretty shameless drawing too, when you sit right down and examine him. Following the rules of cuteness, his head is large in relation to his body, he has a high forehead, the arms are short, he has no neck, and the eyes are spaced low on the head and are unusually large and wide apart. Add in the prehensile tail that he’ll occasionally clutch for comfort as well as his cute little legs and you have yourself one adorable monster. Soo knows that a graphic novel is only as strong as its “normal” characters, though, so we have Portia and Jason for our child stand-ins. And no kid on earth is going to read this and not want to be in Jason or Portia’s shoes, if only for a second. The fact that you care for them too, purple tails or no, is why the book has its heart in the right place.
I’m sure that there’s a lot I’ve missed in this book. The point when Portia transfers possession of her My Little Pony to Jellaby has some kind of significance. In that pony lies Portia’s memories of her disappearing father. And are the names “Portia” and “Jason” significant? What else have I missed? Online, Jellaby has already been nominated for an Eisner Award, which suggests that it has fans already firmly in place. It brings to mind another successful webcomic to book crossover ( Diary of a Wimpy Kid anyone?) and you can’t help wondering if Hyperion is hoping to mimic Wimpy Kid’s success. If so, they couldn’t have picked a better subject. Touching, fun, funny, and mysterious by turns, don’t be surprised if this little graphic novel ends up being one of the favorites of the year.
Notes on the Cover: Not “the cover” in terms of the image on the front. That’s fine. No objections. No, I’m referring to the fact that there is no indication on the cover, the spine, or the title page that this is the first volume in the Jellaby series (which will be two volumes altogether when all is said and done). There are going to be a lot of kids that get to the end of this novel, hit the “To Be Continued . . .” ending and get enraged that they were tricked into reading the first part of a series. I mean it looks as if the publisher was trying to cover up the fact that Jellaby even IS a series, which is exceedingly odd. Are they testing the waters, trying to figure out if the book’s any good before they put those big words “VOLUME ONE” in plain sight? Weird.
- An interview with Kean Soo at the Keep Toronto Reading blog.
- Like Wimpy Kid you can read much of this book online at the Secret Friend Society. You can also find original Jellaby comic strips of varying lengths.
- Aw. Jellaby even has his own MySpace page. Isn’t that adorable? Look at his little picture.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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