Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs: The New Brighton Archeological Society

The New Brighton Archeological Society, Book One: The Castle of GalomarWritten by Mark Andrew Smith; Illustrated by Matthew WeldonColored by Rodrigo Avilés, Jacob Baake, Carlos Carrasco, Bill Crabtree, Jessie Lam, and Ralph Niese.Image; $17.99

After reading this book I learned that some of the material in it was originally published in the Popgun anthology. That explains a lot actually, because I had a hard time figuring out how to connect to the story. Its disjointed, start-stop opening threw me, but at least now I understand why.

Not that I had any problem connecting to the art. It’s easy not only to love Matthew Weldon’s blissfully imaginative illustrations, but to revel in them as well. I want to live in the world Weldon draws.

For that matter, I want to live in the world Smith writes. He’s also got a fantastic imagination and has created a fun world full of good goblins, evil faeries, man-eating housecats, evil treasure-hunters, sprawling mansions, enchanted estates, horrible monsters, secret rooms, and hidden libraries full of forbidden knowledge. And it’s up to four pre-adolescent kids to navigate their way safely through all of it in order to preserve their families’ legacies. It’s a great world and a great set up for a story. Unfortunately, the presentation of that story isn’t as smooth as it could be.

NBAS opens with a series of mostly unrelated scenes. First, there’s a quietly eerie scene in which night falls over a mansion and an island rises up from the nearby coastline to walk to the mansion and – it’s subtle, but I think this is what’s going on – transport it somewhere else. We’re not told why. Nor or we told what the deal is with two faerie-like creatures who seem to be getting married while all this is going on. The couple doesn’t appear again in the book. The mansion does.

After that, we cut to 50 years later and our four heroes are in Antarctica searching for a Frozen City and hoping to get there before someone named Galomar does. We learn later on that the kids are children to two sets of parents. Cooper and Joss are siblings, as are Benny and Becca.

It’s an adorable relationship the four kids have. With their parents all missing, the kids have combined their families and they’re really all brothers and sisters to each other. And it’s nice that this is such an unspoken trait. There’s no lengthy exposition about how they’ve had to band together to make the most of a bad situation; they just have and Smith shows it in a delightful way just by letting us watch.

Unfortunately for the children, Galomar’s waiting for them at the Frozen City and a conflict ensues involving an enslaved faerie and a magic sword. In the middle of it though we cut back to the mansion where the kids are arriving shortly after the disappearance of their parents. That makes the mansion and the rest of the comic a flashback, but we never do return to Antarctica to see the end of that fight. Maybe in Book Two? Maybe we’ll find out why the mansion was transported and who those wedded faeries are in Book Two as well.

Even when the kids get to the mansion their parents left them, their lives there initially are presented as independent sketches. These are what I actually suspect were in the Popgun book. Unlike the two opening scenes, these have definite ends with punch lines. Cooper claims zombies are after him, but it’s really just the kids’ godparents trying to get him to take a bath. Becca discovers ghosts in the attic and the kids have to decide what to do with them. They’re cute and – once you know what they’re doing in the book – charming. But reading them inserted into a graphic novel – and not knowing about Popgun – they threw me off by interrupting the overall story.

Next is a scene in which the kids have a snowball fight in the forest and it’s here that the story truly begins, though it’s just the origin story and not the plot-proper of the graphic novel. Before we get into that though, I have to stop and say that “snowball fight in the forest” doesn’t do justice to the magic of this scene. Weldon certainly deserves some praise, but a lot of the credit goes to Jacob Baake who colored it. (There are a total of six colorists on the book, all of whom did stunning work.) The lushness of the green trees, the crispness of the white snow, and the warmth he gives to the kids’ faces and clothes as they play all combine to make a lovely and exciting place. Like I said, I want to live there.

When Cooper’s hit with a particularly wicked snowball he falls through a rotten, wooden trap door and into a secret, underground room. He’s okay, but the kids discover an old hideout of their parents that’s filled with pictures and books and relics from past adventures. Mostly as a lark – since there’s not much else to do on the estate – the kids decide to reform their parents’ old group, the New Brighton Archeological Society.

The origin-sequence completed, we jump ahead once more to the Spring and the beginning of the Society’s first adventure. I won’t go into a lot of detail about it, but it involves that library I mentioned, the kids’ parents, Galomar, a goblin-faerie war, and a good, old-fashioned dungeon-crawl. There’s a lot of cool stuff and thanks to Weldon and the colorists it all looks amazing. Weldon’s style reminds me some of Ted Naifeh’s in that he can draw a cute kid, a threatening monster, and a convincing landscape with equal effectiveness.

Unfortunately, whereas Naifeh’s stuff never fails to entertain me as an adult, there are lots of bits in NBAS where the story feels over-simplified for the kids in the audience. People over-explain back-story in unrealistic ways. The Society is saved by coincidence more often than through their own cleverness. Every monster the team faces has a trick to defeating it and the Society’s guide just so happens to know all the tricks. Someone will pick something up and keep it for no other reason than curiosity only to have it prove vitally important later on.

And yet, it’s a beautiful, charming book. I reviewed a PDF copy, but I’m certainly buying this to read with my son. (It’s in stores starting today.) He’s going to love the pictures and the adventure and the kids and he’s going to have none of the problems I did with the story. I wish it held up better on an adult level, but maybe that’s not what Smith is going for. Or maybe Book Two will.

Four out of five butterscotch-loving goblins.

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