Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Jim Henson's The Storyteller comics.

Those who know me know that I am a huge fan of Jim Henson.  That includes being a huge fan of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller.  As you may recall, I wrote a Fairy Tale Media Fix about it shortly after my blog started.  I had loved the show since I discovered it on DVD.  I particularly love how the show has its own feel.  The stories involved aren’t trying to be horror stories nor are they trying to be shiny Disney musicals.  My best description is that they try to capture the rough-hewn poetry and dreamlike quality of old folk tales.

Now, at the end of that other post I had made mention of the fact that Archaia Entertainment, a company best known for publishing graphic novels, had published a graphic novel based on The Storyteller.  Archaia had owned the publishing rights to a number of Jim Henson projects for a while, including but not limited to Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal and The Storyteller.  I had always had the intention of going back to that graphic novel in post form but it had always seemed like something I could put off just a little bit.

However, something keeps happening that keeps reminding me that I need to revisit those Storyteller comics.  The Storyteller keeps coming back.  Back in 2013, Archaia merged with the comic book company Boom! Studios.  Suddenly, Archaia published properties didn’t just appear in graphic novels but also started appearing in comic magazine format.  This started in 2014 with a four issue miniseries entitled Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches.
Then at the tail end of 2015, the property popped up again with another four issue miniseries: Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons.  So, it seems like a safe thing to say that Jim Henson’s The Storyteller has some degree of staying power in comic book form.  So, maybe putting this off for a couple of years was not the best bet.
So, here I am with the graphic novel and two miniseries in hand.  Does this comic series measure up to the fantastic series it was based on?

Well . . . that would be setting the bar pretty high.

The truth is that the strengths of a show like The Storyteller are not always something that can be easily replicated on paper.  While the stories do frequently have creatures, they don’t have the actual practical effects work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.  We also don’t have the voice of John Hurt narrating the events except in our heads and we don’t have the strange, folksy turns-of-phrase that screenwriter Anthony Minghella, sadly now deceased, would put in the Storyteller’s mouth.

However, this series does do what an anthology comic book series of this type is really good at and that’s being an artist showcase.  Every story in both the graphic novel and the minis has a different writer and artist.  Each artist has a different style and some of them are absolutely beautiful.  The art and composition from the first two issues of the Witches miniseries are particularly noteworthy, but I do have one qualm about those issues that I’ll mention a little later.  Also, the creators of the series apparently realized that they’re no longer limited by special effects or locations.  The Dragons mini has some big action set pieces that would have probably been impossible on the old show.  Also, while the show limited itself to European tales, the stories in the comics range over much of the world.

The stories are usually good and adapted well.  But sometimes there are a few clunkers.  For example, the graphic novel has a version of “Puss in Boots” that seems to have almost nothing to do with the story that it’s based on.  But there are lots of good stories.  For example, I love the versions of “The Frog Who Became an Emperor” and “Ol’ Fire Dragaman” in that book.  There are also some tales that make some interesting choices.  The Dragons mini has a gender-swapped version of the Russian tale of “Alyosha Popovich”.  Also, the graphic novel features a Romanian folk tale that is told not by the Storyteller but by his dog.

There are a few other niggling details that bother me.  For example, I wish they hadn’t stopped giving a geographical/cultural reference to where the stories originated from after the graphic novel.  It’s as simple as a credit that says “From a Russian Folktale” and at least gives me a hint in case I wish to expand my reading.  I also wish that they didn’t trans-literate the types of monsters sometimes (I’m sorry, but Momotaro killed the “oni” not “ogres”).  And as for that bit about the first two issues of Witches: my problem is that they didn’t have the Storyteller or his dog in them at all.  Maybe they needed to be omitted to make more room for gorgeous artwork, but without them you’re missing the anchor for the series.  Without actual Jim Henson Creatures or the writing and acting associated with the show, the one thing that connects the show to the comic book is those two characters.  The story can still be told well without them, but one panel with them introducing the story would have helped a little bit.  In terms of pacing, I will say that the miniseries do it better as the stories get to play out over 22 pages rather than five or six pages per story in the graphic novel.

Overall though, these comics are good.  They’re not as good as the show and they’re good in ways that are different from the show.  However, the creators of these comics embraced the strengths of the medium they were in rather than bypassing them.  Also, when these comics are on the stands, there’s pretty much nothing like them available.  I’d say they’re well worth a read.  Hopefully, there will be more coming from Archaia (perhaps Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Ghosts or Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Faeries?).  If there are any more coming, I will be eager to see what the next tale will be.

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