Return of the Dapper Men
Written by Jim McCann; Illustrated by Janet Lee
There’s a line in Finding Neverland that’s stuck with me. “Young boys should never be sent to bed. They always wake up a day older.” What I love about that movie (and stories like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland) is their celebration of childhood. They reflect a delightfully tenacious refusal to let something as mundane as growing up steal the joy of an imaginative life.
Of course, there’s a flipside to that perspective. A couple of them, really. The dreary one that’s most often cited by boring people is that you can’t stay a child forever. As a Grown Up, one has Responsibilities to face. As if meeting responsibilities and living a blissful, inspired, creative life are mutually exclusive activities.
There’s another response to the Peter Pan Syndrome though; one that’s just as special as the desire to hold on to childhood. It doesn’t belittle childhood as something to be put behind as quickly (and grumpily) as possible. It takes the best part of childhood and invites us to carry it with us into a more mature way of looking at the world. That’s the perspective that Jim McCann and Janet Lee introduce in Return of the Dapper Men.
It’s the story of a place called Anorev in which Time has ceased to exist. The clocks have stopped ticking (or, to be precise, tocking) and the result is that there is no bedtime. That’s what brought the Finding Neverland quote to mind. No one wakes up any older, because it never gets dark and no one ever has to go to bed. Peter Pan would love it, but in Anorev it means that nothing has meaning anymore. The world has stagnated to the point that even the concept of Play has become rote and tired. The Dapper Men return – as you might expect – to set things right. They get the clocks tocking again. And teach some lessons along the way.
The biggest message that I took away was a wonderful companion to JM Barrie’s. As 41, the only one of the Dapper Men to talk explains to Ayden, the book’s young hero, bedtime is more than necessary. It’s vital and exciting. It’s “blankets and pillows and books by the bed to make the stuff of dreams. And then tomorrows.”
“Tomorrows?” asks Ayden, who doesn’t remember what that means.
“The wonderful thing that follows dreaming. Where everything is possible…”
Imagination and Play are wonderful, but Adventure, says 41, requires Change and Doing. I love that. It values the creative wonder of childhood, but discourages staying there. To live fully, we have to carry that wonder with us as we go about doing things. Growing up doesn’t mean giving up the things that made you smile as a kid. It just means embracing your freedom to interact with and change the world around you. And that’s more wonderful than any childhood dream, because it’s the ability to make those dreams reality.
Speaking of dreams and imagination, Janet Lee’s art sure puts the reader in the proper mindset to contemplate those concepts. Using a combination of markers and decoupage, she creates a magical, child-like world full of mechanical wonder. Return of the Dapper Men has been described as a steampunk fairy tale and Lee makes it look like one.
From a writing standpoint, the steampunk angle is easy to see – the world is full of gears and robots and clockworks – but the fairy tale label takes more effort to unpack. This is mostly because fairy tales themselves are so difficult to define. Do they have to have fairies in them? Do they even have to have magic? Do they require a conflict between good and evil? Experts disagree.
I’m certainly no scholar, but what I think of when I hear the term is a story for children that teaches some kind of life lesson in a subtle way (as opposed to the overt morals in fables, for instance). By that definition, Return of the Dapper Men certainly qualifies. Though I’ve tried to make one of the book’s messages overt in this post, I don’t know that everyone’s going to have the same reaction or place as much weight on that particular piece of the story. It was the message that was most powerful to me, but there are more that I don’t doubt will resonate more strongly with other readers.
The book is packed with symbolism and meaning, much of which I’m sure I missed in my initial reading. The role of the robots, for instance. Other than the Dapper Men, there are no adults in Anorev, so where did all the children come from?
There are hints that they may have come from the robots. While chastising the humans and machines for not getting along, 41 says, “You, that’s no way to speak to what you’ve created. And you, you should be thankful you’re even alive because of them.” Only he’s not looking at anyone in particular and you can’t tell which group he’s addressing when.
One of the kids calls him on it. “I can’t tell who you’re talking to!”
“I honestly have no idea,” he says.
Neither do I, but I’m going to enjoy re-reading (and continuing the story in the next two Dapper Men volumes) and trying to figure it out.
Discussion Questions: If you’ve read Return of the Dapper Men, what do you think is the relationship between the humans and robots?
If you haven’t, recommend another great steampunk comic. I’ve got the itch to read more now.