Earthboy Jacobus

Earthboy Jacobus coverEarthboy Jacobus is both surprisingly light and refreshing, and surprisingly filling and satisfying. In the blurb on the back cover, Mike Mignola compares it to a cross between Will Eisner and Bill Waterson, and I can definitely see what he means by that. On one hand, it’s full of wacky sci-fi elements and spot-on child-like goofiness. On the other, it’s a meditation on the relationships that provide meaning to our lives.

The story is about a just-retired police chief and ex-marine who happens upon a kid trapped in the mouth of an interdimensional flying whale. The boy - named Jacobus, of course - turns out to have nasty creatures from a parallel universe out to get him, and naturally the Chief has to protect him, all the while struggling with the new-found responsibility of this young person in his life.

It was these early scenes that first sold me on the book. TenNapel has a real knack for the dialog of a 7-year-old kid, in particular, and some of the coversations between Chief and Jacobus, or Jacobus and his new classmates echoed in my head as if replaying conversations I’d had with my parents or my “friends” at school several decades ago. In later scenes, as Jacobus grows up (but not entirely), he morphs into just the right combination of malcontent and hurtful teen and still-sensitive boy.

He tosses in some find sound effects as well; I could hear some of them in my head as I read them. Sound effects get too little respect and too little use these days.

Earthboy Jacobus coverThe art is excellent. There are points where TenNapel lays the chiaroscuro on a bit thick, to the point that it’s hard to make out what we’re looking at. Not a problem most of the time, but with things and settings as alien as some of those in this story, it makes things a bit difficult to follow. But other than that, it’s a delight. It’s stylized and expressive, setting the tone effectively, and there’s never any question - even without reading the dialog - what the characters are feeling. The monsters are bizarre and other-worldly, but almost believable, as if these creatures would naturally evolve in such an environment as their world.

Although it was the early scenes that sold me on the book, the late scenes definitely closed the deal. By that time (they’ve had over 250 pages, you know) the characters have grown considerably, and I don’t just mean in terms of Jacobus being taller. And TenNapel gives us a series of flashbacks that give them even more depth, simultaneously adding depth to what seemed fairly two-dimensional scenes early in the book. Suddenly the Chief, who seemed like a pretty coherent and understandable character all along, turns out to have additional facets. Brilliant.

I didn’t get the point of the last three pages, though; the ending would’ve made more sense without them, I think.

The book has other flaws, as well. I have to admit that seeing the stars and stripes waving across the cover didn’t exactly warm my heart. It’s just too politically loaded these days, and at its best it’s become a cheap ploy to appeal to readers in the intellectual cheap seats. There’s little mistaking TenNapel’s political viewpoint (I looked up his web site afterward and confirmed it), which is expressed in this book by some brief childish ridiculing of public schools, and some heavy-handed dialog in which the Bad Guys incongruously spout a bad parody of Great Society philosophy with some Marxist atheism thrown in, dogma that bears no apparent connection to what they’re doing in the story (simple expansionist imperialism). Either TenNapel thinks this will make his villains seem even more villainous (like making your gangsters into Nazi gangsters), or he just wants to tar liberals with the ugly brush by association.

On the other hand, the points where the Good Guys talk about what they actually believe in aren’t quite as forced and actually contribute to the characterisation. Nor did I mind the apparent stroking of the U.S. Marines, because when some creature’s trying to eat you or someone you love, a little firepower is certainly appropriate. Dragging a U.S. flag along to serve as Jacobus’ inspiration was a bit hokey, but harmless.

Regardless, TenNapel doesn’t really dwell on the sociopolitical statements, and the story isn’t really about politics or even social philosophy. I guess he just can’t help making some nasty digs at his “enemies” along the way, even when it detracts from the tale he’s telling. Fair enough; I’ve been known to do it too. But it’s a flaw in an otherwise excellent book. And a conservative critic of my acquaintaince noticed it as well, so it’s not just my bed-wetting liberalism at work. I didn’t really mean to devote so much space to it, because it really isn’t that much of a problem in this book (as it is with his web site, which is full of puerile kneebiting). It’s just that it’s one of the few complaints I have, and even an unrepentent right-winger deserves constructive criticism. {smile}

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