I’m in the home stretch with these. Yes, soon I will be out of comics to review! What a concept!
But first, let’s look at another devastatingly good graphic novel, Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn, which will set you back $25 and comes to us courtesy of Candlewick Press. I guess this is technically a “children’s book,” but like all really good kid lit, it works for grown-ups as well.
Phelan sets his story in 1937 Kansas, at the height of the Dust Bowl. His art reflects this, as he drains all life from the landscape, so that it often appears that his characters are inhabiting an alien world unlike ours. The lack of background details in the book might seem like a weakness, but what it does is isolate the characters in their place, so that we know nothing from the “outside” will help them. Plus, it lends a dream-like quality to the story, and as Phelan is basically telling a fable, this helps us accept the fantastical elements a bit more.
Phelan can certainly do backgrounds – in a flashback we see the paradise that Kansas was before the dust arrived – but he deliberately wants to make the characters utterly alone, with no hope. He does a fine job with this element, as it seems like he etches hardness onto the faces of the characters – his line work is delicate, but he manages to give the characters steely gazes nevertheless. The star of the book, 11-year-old Jack Clark, enters a barn of a recently-departed family and sees a man whose face looks like rain, and the contrast between this apparition and the rest of the book is striking. The rain man is sinister and mysterious, but he looks almost more solid than many of the characters, who appear as if they’re about to drift away with the winds. Only their hardened expressions keep them there. Phelan also contrasts the solidity of the barn and the rain man with the tent in which Jack’s ill sister, Dorothy (she and Jack read the Oz books, in case the parallels aren’t obvious enough), is kept. Dorothy suffers from “dust pneumonia,” and everyone fears she’s going to die soon. Phelan puts her in this silken cocoon, a second layer of isolation turning her even more ethereal, and it’s because of her that Jack ventures into the foreboding barn to seek out the man with the rain in his face. Phelan does a marvelous job centering the “realness” of the world on the barn, turning our expectations around – the fantastical element is the most “solid” character in the book.
His story, as I mentioned, centers on Jack, who is bullied by older kids and largely ignored by his father, who is planning on uprooting the family and moving to California. What’s interesting is WHY he’s ignored by his father – not because his dad doesn’t love him (his dad is a hard man, but not a jerk), but because he was too young to work the farm when the rain stopped coming, so now that he’s old enough to help, there’s no farming to be done.
His father’s identity is so wrapped up in farming that he never took the time to do anything else with Jack. It’s an interesting problem for our hero. Meanwhile, as I wrote above, his older sister is suffering from “dust pneumonia,” which appears to be the opposite of regular pneumonia, in that her condition gets worse as it gets dustier (dust pneumonia is real, by the way). Ernie, the proprietor of the general store in town, tells Jack fables about “Jack,” who’s always fighting wind-related creatures. And, of course, Jack and Dorothy read about Oz. So Jack is full of stories of the weather acting like a somewhat malevolent force, plus he’s surrounded by a world where the weather affects every aspect of life. This leads the people to make hard decisions, like the brutal slaughter of jackrabbits about halfway through the book – the rabbits eat everything green, exacerbating the effects of the drought even more. Jack shouldn’t see the killing, but he does, of course, and it destroys the image he has of the townspeople, the bullies who pick on him, and his father. It’s a devastating moment.
One night, Jack thinks he sees a bright light coming from the barn next door, on the property of a family that has recently moved west. The first time he enters the barn, no one believes that he sees a man with rain in his face, and the second time he goes inside, it’s to retrieve his younger sister, Mabel, and it’s then that he actually comes in contact with the apparition. He wonders if he’s suffering from “dust dementia,” but after the slaughter of the rabbits, he decides to re-enter the barn and confront the man. This leads to an amazing, long, almost wordless confrontation with the apparition, where Jack learns what the thing is and why he’s in the barn. Phelan does a fantastic job linking the Dust Bowl with Americana, growing up, faith and lack thereof, and the strength of a community.
Even something as horrible as the slaughter of the jackrabbits brings the community together – true, it links them through shame, but it’s a communal event, and they all share in the guilt. Jack believes in nothing except his family and his desire to help them, and that gives him strength when he needs it. He can’t stand seeing his father reduced to killing hares, and this makes him want to restore the family’s dignity, even if his father thinks he’s useless. It’s a remarkably complex comic, one that rewards a slow read. It’s nice to see a comic written for kids that tackles tough themes in such an interesting way. Like a lot of good kids’ lit, we think we’re only reading a fairy tale, but once we start thinking about what Phelan is doing, it’s much deeper.
The Storm in the Barn is a wonderful comic, with a beautiful, haunting story and art. Phelan tells a story full of fabulous moments, quiet ones between people who care about each other and bigger ones between our hero and the larger-than-life creature in the barn. It’s exciting and thoughtful, highlighting a horrible time in American history with a story that speaks to the larger theme but is also an intimate portrait of a family in turmoil. Give it a look the next time you’re looking for comics to read!
Tomorrow at noon: Yay! New Matt Kindt! But will it be as good as old Matt Kindt?