The five most criminally ignored books of 2008: No. 2, Rapunzel's Revenge

As a critic, I tend to distrust the recent slate of graphic novels from big book publishers made "for kids." I have good reason to. Most of these titles seem to be made purely in the interest of catching onto a trend or slapping together a tie-in to an existing franchise. Very few of the books I come across seem to have any true regard for the art form, let alone the audience.

Not so with Rapunzel's Revenge. This children's comic, by the husband and wife team of Shannon and Dean Hale and artist Nathan Hale (no relation), is a smart, thrilling and extraordinarily well-executed book.

As you may guess by the title, the story is an update on the classic fairy tale. As you may guess by the cover image above, it plays a bit fast and loose with the source material.

To wit, Rapunzel lives in the lap of luxury under the tutelage of the evil witch Mother Gothel until she discovers the truth of her birth and, rebelling, is banished to a high tree tower. Once her hair grows long enough, however, she's able to escape and, with the help of a layabout thief, sets about getting her revenge and restoring the natural order of things.

OK, so yes, it's the updated fairy tale with a Wild West/tall-tale twist and slightly modernist spin. You've no doubt seen this sort of thing before, and there are no real surprises here, unless you consider fully thought out, well-rounded characters; and genuine, earned emotion to be surprises. I do, but then I'm a cynic.

Probably the best thing about the book is its main character, who manages to embody the book's theme of (for want of a better phrase) "self-actualized girl power" without coming across as a wan stereotype. As with the films of Hayao Miyazaki (whose influence, intended or not, seems strong here), Rapunzel comes off as a recognizable and thoroughly likable person. You find yourself hopelessly wrapped up in her adventures and cheering her on towards success.

What's more, the Hales (all of them) seem to have a real understanding of what makes comics work. Nathan Hale paces the story exceedingly well -- his action sequences have a real tension to them, and his backgrounds are filled with vast landscapes and detail. What's more, Shannon and Dean's text never once becomes overwritten or burdensome, a real problem with a lot of first-time comic authors.

Again, I'm probably cheating a little bit by including this book on this list, as I suspect it got more than its share of attention in library and children's book circles. But as is so often the case in the comics world, unless it's in Previews, has 32 pages and comes out on a Wednesday we ignore it completely. That seems to be especially true for children's books, which have the unforgivable habit of falling under our radar. Apart from the passing interview, I'm not sure anyone in the comics blogosphere or beyond noticed this book.

And that's a shame, as Rapunzel's Revenge is a a real treat. I was utterly besotted by this book after only a few pages, and so was my daughter, who I passed it onto afterward. How nice that to know that books like that -- books you can share and enjoy in equal amounts across generational lines -- still exist. They seem to come less and less these days.

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