Fred was a French comic creator (born Frederic Othon Aristides) whose “Philemon” graphic albums were hugely popular in the ’70s and ’80s, but whose work never made it over the Atlantic Ocean to get translated into English. Toon Books’ new line of graphic novels for older readers hopes to fix that, bringing the first book in the series — “Philemon et le Naufrage du A” — to life here under the title, “Cast Away on the Letter A.” And while this book feels a little rough in spots, there’s enough here to see why Fred’s comics grabbed so many people’s attention.
“Cast Away on the Letter A” follows Philemon, a young man who lives on a farm with his father, as a series of mysterious letters in bottles bob up from a well and it becomes too intriguing to ignore. The next thing we know, Philemon’s trapped on a strange island in the shape of the letter A, while two suns wheel overhead and centaurs and unicorns inhabit the area…
“Cast Away on the Letter A” has a lot of great ideas, and I love some of the imagery that Fred comes up with. The whole idea of why the island is in the form of the letter A is brilliant (even as the characters admit that it’s impossible), for example, and it perfectly reinforces the strange nature of the sideways-dimension world that Philemon and Mr. Bartholomew are trapped within. It’s near the end of the book where I feel like Fred comes up with some of the best-realized moments in the visuals; the labyrinth on the second island, for example, or the ceiling of water hanging impossibly in the air. I just wish that some of the other visuals could have come to life half as well. Some of the more entertaining ideas, like the life-sized ship-in-a-bottle, is great in concept but looks a little rough in reality. Fred’s art is very scratchy and feels quite stripped down in spots. This book is so early in Fred’s career that it makes me wonder if over time we see a bit richer art. It’s not bad, but some of the most inventive moments just don’t seem to have the art chops to pull off what Fred’s attempting.
I’m actually eager to see a follow-up to “Cast Away on the Letter A” before long (and I believe Toon is planning on translating more of the “Philemon” series), if only to see where Fred goes from here. Some of the ideas here are so bonkers — like the plant that pretends to be a clock before exploding — that they warrant seeing more of the strange thoughts that came to Fred. If the execution can get as strong as the concepts, this could be great. For now, it’s not bad, but I’m not quite wowed, either.