"One must hide when the sun gets higher / I don't know what this madness means"
I always wonder why Greg Ruth doesn't do more comics, but I assume he's making coin some other way and we should just be glad he makes any comics (he does a lot of book illustrations). His latest comic, The Lost Boy, is published by Graphix and costs $12.99.
Plus, it's excellent.
The Lost Boy is ostensibly for kids, and the great thing about it is that there's nothing in it that would make it not for kids, but it's still a creepy and disturbing book in a lot of ways. It's far scarier before we know much, which is always the way, but what keeps it good is that Ruth's story is more than just about shock value - it's about bigger and more mature themes, and he's able to get to them fairly subtly. There's a lot of fiction that aimed at children where the value for adults is in making pop culture references that the adults will get. Ruth, however, is too good a creator to do that.
The story is relatively simple. A boy named Nate moves to a new house in a small town and finds a tape recorder (a reel-to-reel, if we're being technical) under the floorboards in the room he picks out for himself. When he listens to it, he hears another boy, named Walt, telling a story about the town. Walt began to notice strange things about the town - the forest in the center of town was "unusual," he saw a cricket dressed in a tuxedo riding a dog, a squirrel spoke to him, and an eerie doll was standing outside his house. He confides in a local shopkeeper, Haloran, who knows more about this than you'd expect. While Nate is listening to the tapes, a neighbor girl named Tabitha sees him and freaks out a bit.
She also knows a bit more about the town, and she tells Nate that Walt disappeared (Walt lived in the early 1960s), and Tabitha is a bit fascinated with the mystery, because she doesn't believe he ran away from an angry father or that he was kidnapped. So as Nate and Tabitha listen to the tapes, we see how Walt slowly becomes involved in this strange world. Then, in the second half of the book, Nate and Tabitha go on a quest for Walt. That's when the book becomes more of an adventure and less of a creepshow, but there's still a lot of strange things going on in the world of the forest.
Ruth sets the whole thing up as a classic adventure, good-versus-evil and whatnot, with ancient bad guys trying to get out of a prison and overwhelm the world, with a main villain trying to effect that. Nate and Tabitha, naturally, have to stop it. But Ruth isn't as interested in whether they succeed or not (they do, naturally, but Ruth does leave room for a sequel if he so chooses) as in how they do so and what it means for them. The villain is terrifying, but it also seems to be desperate for some reason, and Ruth is clever enough to lead us to a confrontation between the bad guy and the kids that doesn't unfold as we might expect. The villain begins as a one-dimensional bad guy, but it doesn't remain that way, and it makes the inevitable battle between the villain and the kids more interesting. Ruth also frames this a bit as a transition from adolescence to adulthood - the creatures fighting against the "Shadows" want Walt for something, but it becomes clear that he's not the one, and it's interesting why he's not.
Ruth is cleverly showing how actions have consequences and how the choices we make affect so many other things, and it's also fascinating how different circumstances in Walt and then Nate and Tabitha's lives make them different people and affects how the creatures deal with them. The nice thing about the book is that it's still a grand adventure, as the early parts of the book are very creepy and foreboding, and the second half features attacks on the kids, scenes of tragic destruction, and a big fight among high hoodoos connected by rickety wooden plank bridges. So while there's a lot of deep stuff going on, it's still exciting to read. Ruth does a good job with the three main characters, as they each have discernible and interesting personalities and they each get to do cool things. Tabitha isn't the focus of the story, and the weakest part of the book is how she knows so much about Walt (even though she says he's the "local ghost story," she seems to know a lot more about Walt and the forest creatures than a normal girl would, but Ruth never gets around to explaining how she knows). But in the second half of the book, she and Nate make a good team - she can take care of herself a bit better than he can, because she knows more about the forest than he does, but Nate's able to deal with the villain better because of the way he's been raised. Walt, also, is a good character, as the reasons why he's not the person the creatures are looking for ties in well with his upbringing, and it's not even that bad a thing that gets him in "trouble" with the forest folk. There's a lot of interesting nuances to the characters, and it makes their plights even more affecting.
Ruth's art is always stunning, and this book is probably the best work I've ever seen from him. He uses pen and ink very well, but he also appears to use some brushes, and the result is astonishing.
I can't get over how good the art on this book is - Ruth's amazing brushstrokes add a nice layer of texture to the entire town, as we can almost feel the wood and dirt and the folds in the characters' clothing. He gives us spooky characters like Queen Mary, Baron Tick, Tom Button, and the Vespertine, but he's also excellent with the humans. He's so good at body language, and the way Nate and Tabitha interact with each other is wonderful and establishes how their friendship grows. His use of chiaroscuro is brilliant, too, as it highlights the more subtle themes he's using in the book. Ruth is a precise craftsman, so when he goes a bit more abstract, the effect is amazing - the principals are attacked by birds at one point, and we get a double-page spread in which Ruth uses broader and thicker strokes to make the scene more intense. The climax on the rocks is amazing, too, as Ruth uses every bit of the scene to create a ton of tension, as we're really not sure who's going to plummet to their deaths. Ruth is also good at a naturalistic tone, so when he shows insects or birds, they look like actual insects and birds, which makes the fact that they talk or wear tuxedos all the more disturbing. He does an excellent job varying the shades, too, so that when Nate and Tabitha wander through the world of the forest, there's a weird, nostalgic, tragic vibe to the landscape. It's beautiful but haunting. He also does a good job showing the differences between the early 1960s and the present without being too overt about it. Small touches, like Bill wearing an open shirt over a white T-shirt or Walt's dad smoking a pipe, go a long way. Ruth is an amazing artist, and it's nice to see a full-length book by him. It's been too long.
It's nice to see Ruth doing more comics, and it's even nicer when it turns out to be one of the better comics of the year. If you've never read Ruth's comics, do yourself a favor and pick this up. It's very cool.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆