A review a day: Return of the Dapper Men

This is the fourth time this book has been mentioned on this blog in less than a month. Oh, the publicity!

Archaia was nice enough to send this to me, so I'd like to thank them for it. Return of the Dapper Men is a nice big hardcover, priced to move at $24.95, and it's written by Jim McCann and drawn (plus other stuff) by Janet Lee. Dave Lanphear chips in with the lettering. Shall we delve into it?

Let's get this out of the way right quick: Return of the Dapper Men is a kids' book. It's a very good kids' book, to be sure, but if you don't have kids or aren't interested in books written for children, you might not like this. It's charming and cute and even a bit clever, but it's also a bit simplistic and moralistic, aiming at instructing kids on how to live rather than telling a truly great story.

Before you think I'm being harsh, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I would recommend this book to anyone with children, because I think kids will love it (I haven't shown it to my five-year-old yet, but I will). But if you're looking for anything more than a fable, you're out of luck. In his introduction Tim Gunn claims that the reader will find "puzzles, riddles, and anagrams that serve as catalysts for further investigation and research." Maybe. I could be an imbecile, but it didn't seem all that mysterious to me. But that doesn't mean it's not worth your time.

McCann begins in the land of Anorev (which is "Verona" spelled backward, the only obvious puzzle in the book, although I don't know if or how it's significant), where time has inexplicably stopped. Only children under the age of 11 live there, and they live deep underground, in a marvelous clockwork world (where, of course, nothing moves). On the surface of the world live robots - very lifelike robots who dress like adults and live in houses. The two groups hardly ever interact, and as time has stopped, the children never get older and have no concept of a past or a future - everything is now. The stars of the book are Ayden, a boy, and Zoe, a robot, who are best friends. Ayden is the only child who ventures into the upper world of the robots, and when he goes below and takes Zoe with him, the other children - led by a nasty girl ironically named Harmony - reject him. Meanwhile, in the bay stands a giant statue of an angel, who holds silent chimes of Roman numerals. A dandified robot named Fabre is in love with the angel and believes Zoe is the key to reaching it, so he's always trying to kidnap her. Into this stagnant world come 314 "dapper men," nattily-attired guys who drift down from the sky, Mary Poppins-style, and immediately begin changing things. One of them, "41," takes a special interest in Ayden and Zoe, and the three of them are off on an adventure!

The problem with the book, from an adult's standpoint, is that McCann leaves nothing to speculation - the book is about growing up, taking charge, leaving childish things behind, using your imagination to make the world better, and discovering new things. McCann makes sure we get the point, and it hinders the narrative a bit. As oblique as 41 can be, it's clear where he's pushing Ayden and Zoe, so there's really nothing a reader to do except follow along as McCann leads us where he wants us to go. While his message is noteworthy and certainly good advice, it's difficult to love the book because the characters remain archetypes, and when was the last time you loved characters in a myth or a fairy tale? They're there to make a point, and while Zoe and Ayden are a bit more interesting than Sisyphus or Hansel and Gretel (to whom Gunn compares them in his introduction), they're still puppets, and McCann never quite manages to turn them into real characters who do unexpected and "human" things. It holds the book back a bit. In the spirit of morality tales, McCann never lets pictures tell the story when words will hammer the point home.

I was mightily disappointed only once when I was reading this book, when at a crucial moment that is perfectly conveyed by Lee's artwork in a beautiful full-page drawing, McCann puts words right in the middle of the picture, telling us exactly what we are looking at. There's absolutely no reason for it, except that he is writing a fable for children, and perhaps children won't get the point. As an adult, I was very frustrated with the page. This is the most obvious example, but he does it quite often throughout the comic.

This might sound unduly harsh, but I just want to make it clear that McCann is definitely writing for a younger audience, and unlike some young adult comics I've read in the past, I don't think this has a lot of appeal to adults. I think McCann's writing works very well for a much younger audience - I've been accused of having no heart or soul before because I don't love stuff aimed directly at children, but I always need to point out that just because I've grown up doesn't mean I don't appreciate stuff for children, just that I don't love it. McCann's point is a very good one, and he gets to it in a nice way - he takes his time, and while it's fairly obvious where he's going to me, it probably won't be for someone younger, so it will probably have a greater impact on a different reader. I always appreciate entertainment for children that doesn't simply resort to violence, and McCann doesn't in this book - Fabre and Harmony are the obvious villains, but they're more tragic figures than simple bad guys, so their arcs fit in well with the rest of the book. The friendship between Ayden and Zoe is handled nicely, as McCann makes some good points about people who are different finding common ground, a lesson even adults need to learn. Despite his tendency to overwrite with regard to his grand themes, the fact that Zoe never speaks and that the Dapper Men with the exception of 41 are also silent is nice, as it gives us some powerful scenes where the characters' acting must speak for them. There is a lot to like about the story in Return of the Dapper Men, but it's definitely an admiration rooted in the fact that McCann has created something to teach children lessons, so you have to go in with that expectation.

McCann does have a secret weapon, though, and that's Lee's brilliant artwork. In the back of the book McCann explains Lee's decoupage process, and while it certainly makes the backgrounds interesting, it's Lee's pencil and coloring work that really makes the book amazing to look at.

Her characters are the most simplistic part of the book - she keeps faces clean and unfettered by too much detail, but that doesn't stop them from expressing themselves wonderfully through tiny facial tics. She places these relatively simple characters into a dazzling world of gears and wild buildings, surrounding the robots and children with the raw materials for an astonishing world, if only they would wake up from their ever-present now. The first few pages of the book explode in a Big Bang of machinery, building up Anorev out of the void, and Lee drops in some gorgeous full-page drawings that relate to the main story but also seem to stand alone as magnificent works of art on their own. In the middle of the book, she goes back to the creation myth, showing the Dapper Men striding across an unformed world and molding it into something, then disappearing (McCann leaves the Dapper Men and their role mysterious, which is how it should be). In a book where time is very important, Lee (in conjunction with McCann, I assume, although I could be wrong) occasionally twists the way we read a page to make our eyes rotate clockwise around the page, mimicking a hand moving across a clock face. She does this quite often, drawing the eye in a circular rather than a line-by-line direction, and it's smoothly done and not in any way uncomfortable. Lee's work is truly amazing, and it's nice to see that Marvel has taken notice of her.

If you're mainly interested in art in a comic, I'd definitely recommend picking this book up. If you have kids, I'd also definitely recommend picking it up. If you want a bit more complexity from your story, you might want to skip this. Return of the Dapper Men is a very ambitious comic, and while Lee nails it, it feels like McCann could have been more subtle and still retained the fascination of children while making this a bit more interesting for adults. As a book strictly for children, however, this is a marvel. I'm looking forward to reading it with my daughter.

Tomorrow: Oh, the French. They can make sado-masochism cute!

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