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Friday, April 12, 2013

Getting to Know...Doug TenNapel

Until recently, if you stumbled into one of Doug TenNapel’s quirky fantasy worlds there’s a good chance that it was through the video game Earthworm Jim or Nickelodeon’s Catscratch. But TenNapel has also worked away valiantly in the graphic novel format for the past 15 years and now seems to have hit the pop culture jackpot with his Cardboard, instantly beloved by librarians and elementary school teachers around the country (nominating it for all sorts of 2012 “best-of” lists). It has also been optioned as a Toby “Spider-Man” Maguire film by the folks behind Ice Age. The fantasy device at the heart of this TenNapel story may feel very familiar, fairytale-familiar in fact: a boy is given a seemingly ordinary object which quickly displays astonishing properties, taking on a life of its own and churning out so much magic that the adventure soon threatens to veer into nightmare territory. But can something as mundane as cardboard ever pass convincingly for magical, you may ask. Yes. Imagination + corrugated paper . . . as every child knows, it’s a simple, foolproof, alchemical formula. Also, even older readers really don’t have much chance resisting the story’s enchantment--TenNapel doesn't play fair and always uses his vibrant illustrations as the jack up his sleeve, his loaded dice.

This is the third of his popular graphic novels published for Scholastic Books (earlier books having come mainly through Image Comics) and aimed at a young audience. The first was Ghostopolis, a story of a troubled boy's journey into the land of the dead. Ghostopolis is an unusually haunting, richly mythopoeic book for TenNapel and might function as a natural stepping stone for kids destined to wander--a few years down the line--into Neil Gaiman territory. Between the release of these two graphic novels, TenNapel produced the energetic adventure story Bad Island. This was something of a cross between Jurassic Park and elements of the original, animated Transformers: The Movie from 1986 (sigh, yes, I'm geeky enough to bring in that reference).

And for the readers who just can't get enough TenNapel, his slightly more mature (i.e. enigmatic and a bit bloody) Gear is something else entirely. Gear was the first of his graphic novels. It is raw and rough-hewn. It's so short on exposition, so unconcerned with being “accessible” that I'd be tempted to call the book uncommerical, except that TenNapel later raided his character cast here to create the Catscratch cartoon. And the artwork is just as bold and gonzo as the story.


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