The new, high-profile “Hansel & Gretel” from Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti has a strange genesis, even for comics. Originally Mattotti’s illustrations were created for a 2007 art exhibition that tied into a Metropolitan Opera production. That led to more Mattotti illustrations for a French publisher, who accompanied it with a translation of the story into French. Now, Toon Books is publishing their own edition (or rather, editions, which will be explained shortly) of the illustrations, but this time with publishing superstar Gaiman providing the retelling of “Hansel & Gretel.” I bring all of this up not only because it’s interesting, but because it’s such a strange origin that it would be understandable if you wrote it off as being destined for failure. In fact, it’s excellent.
The format of the book is a little different than you might expect; it alternates, first with a two-page spread of a single illustration by Mattotti, then two pages of traditional storybook text from Gaiman. The book goes back and forth in that regard, never letting you go too long without a dose of one creator or the other. What makes this setup work so well is that both creators are able to own their own conjure up dark, disturbing images. As a result, the two contributions end up feeding off of one another. Switching from one form to the other doesn’t break the spell, it in fact enhances it, plunging you further and further into the shadows of the story.
Painted in india ink, it’s easy to see how Mattotti’s illustrations inspired multiple showings of the work. Savvy comics readers will have encountered his dark, gloomy art in publications like “Chimera,” “Fires,” and “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde” before, but he’s never had a massive breakout success in the comics world that put his name on everyone’s lips. Hopefully, this will go a way towards fixing that. These black and white illustrations are gorgeous, bringing adjectives to mind like wind-swept and flowing. There’s an amazing sensation of motion on these pages, with the thick inks swirling and swooping from one location to another. Hansel and Gretel are little more than shadows in a world of darkness, lacking any distinguishable features aside from being a little boy and a little girl. This works in the book’s favor, their silhouettes transforming them into stand-ins for every young child in the world; they’re no longer random characters, but somehow almost someone you know and fear for. The black and white nature of Mattotti’s illustrations in particular make the gingerbread house no longer something of wonder, but something to be feared in this dark and dangerous world. It’s an interesting interpretation but one that meshes well with everything else we’ve seen up until now. There’s no respite even with delicious sweets to be eaten, the witch’s home becoming that creepy house at the end of the street in the woods that no one goes near until they have to.
Gaiman takes the inherent challenge thrown down by Mattotti’s illustrations and runs with it as best he can. Because so much of the story is already set in stone in terms of the basic structure, his updates are primarily in choice of language and additional descriptive elements. For example, his narration of Hansel’s stomach turning in knots from hunger as he listens to his parents discuss the idea of abandoning him and Gretel in the forest is sufficiently dark and borders on heartbreaking. Gaiman also tackles as best he can some of the slightly problematic aspects of the story that might jump out at today’s readers. After abandoning the children twice in the woods, the idea of Hansel and Gretel coming back home being a happy ending is a bit of a red flag, so Gaiman tries to play up the grief and massive regret over what their father has done as best he can. Gretel’s ability to sneak up on the witch to destroy her is also explained a bit better, showing the reader why the witch would have been lulled into a false sense of security. Best of all, I appreciate the quiet ambiguity to the mother’s fate in this story. With the abandonment being her idea in the first place, some sort of punishment has always seemed necessary even as most tellings rob the reader of having that occur. Here, while Gaiman still follows the outline of the traditional story, the reader is left to determine just what caused her death; the father’s vague explanation opens the doors to all sorts of dark possibilities that would be in line with the rest of this shadow-filled edition.
“Hansel & Gretel” is ultimately a big success, taking an odd project and making it work because of the sheer talent involved. Toon Books clearly agrees, offering up two different editions. The standard edition is a typical 7×10″ hardcover, but there’s also a deluxe hardcover clocking in at 9×12″, a die-cut cover, and 4 bonus pages about the book. While it’s more expensive, I’d recommend the deluxe edition; Mattotti’s art looks good in the 7×10″ dimensions, but it’s breathtaking at the 9×12″ expansion. This is a book where even after you’ve stopped reading Gaiman’s text, you’ll want to continue reliving Mattotti’s illustrations every year — especially right around Halloween. This is a dark corner of the world that’s worth visiting.