The dragon may be the last of its kind, but The Last Dragon is not—however its kind might be classified. Is it a long comic? Is it a picture book? Illustrated tale? Curious. I expected The Last Dragon to be good, and it was—just not in the ways I thought it would be;* which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Two hundred years ago, humans drove the dragons from the islands of May. Now, the last of the dragons rises to wreak havoc anew—with only a healer’s daughter and a kite-flying would-be hero standing in its way.
Master storyteller Jane Yolen (Owl Moon, Sword of the Rightful King) and celebrated fantasy artist Rebecca Guay (Swamp Thing, Magic: The Gathering) weave a textured and lyrical tale of adventure, homelands , and heroism the hard way. ~publisher’s comments.
The Last Dragon is referred to as a graphic novel when picture book would be closer to the truth—even then, I’m not sure that is right. There are panels, small bursts of text framed out within panels or full page illustrations, and speech bubbles. There are even sequences that would relay movement, text-less and expressive. And while the artwork is quite beautiful, it functions more as companion than partner in storytelling.
The story begins with the historical context via pages that look to be taken straight from an old text. It is so very very lovely. “Two hundred years later,” (the form shifts) and we discover a last dragon egg and it is hatching. The dragon grows, the text tells us, a dramatic continuation of a fairly cinematic entry. I could practically hear the birdsong and burble of water in those image-sequences. And then the text moves to describe the now-grown dragon.
The image is a double-page spread of the dragon in the rain, looking at his reflection in the water with a narrow rectangular two page inset below it of a night sky, a full moon, and the dragon in flight.
[The text in three boxes, the first two: first page left, the last: second page right.]
His color was a dull red. Not the red of hollyberry or the red of the flowering trillium, but the read of a man’s life-blood spilled out upon the sand. His eyes were black and, when angry, looked as empty as the eyes of a shroud, but when he was calculating they shone with a false jeweled light.
The dragon’s tail was long and sinewy, his body longer still. Great mountains rose upon his back. His jaws were a furnace that could roast a whole bull. His wings, still crumpled and weak, lay untested along his sides, but his foreclaws which had been as brittle as shells at his birth, were no hard as golden oak. (18)
A week later, his wings opened. That night he dreamed of an ocean of blood. (19)
Yolen is a refined storyteller, she weaves beautiful images; her word choices are an aspect to admire. However, do you see the problem? In a graphic novel, the text would be redundant, if not exasperating, and could disrupt the pacing of the story. The art would do the work to evoke not only the image, but the tone. As it is, the illustrations do not even try to compete. Guay, at home in the comic craft, appears to give us another kind of lyricism: The Last Dragon looking at another dragon, staring up from the water, up from beneath where some of the other dragons have since lay buried. A sentient creature of nature, however legendary and terrifying. Of note: this my thinking about the image, its composition, and its placement in the story and alongside the text—upon a second reading. As it was, the narration and dialog placed with large paneled illustrations that are beautiful, but seemingly gratuitous, guides the rest of the experience of the book. It feels incidental that the story works.
The Last Dragon is a wonderful story. It has humor and romance and nicely formed characters. I would recommend the read to anyone. Jane Yolen is a master storyteller, and Rebecca Guay is a talented choice as accompanist. There are several pages I would have to restrain myself from excising. However, I wouldn’t care to set up the expectation that this will read like a traditional comic book (to the detriment of both book and reader). That it is an illustrated hybrid may actually suit a wider audience.
recommendations: for lovers of old tales, fans of Yolen, juvenile ages upward, girls and boys alike. readers of fantasy, eco-critics, those who find humor in the dramatics of older tales, feminists, and/or non-comic readers.
*do I celebrate the departures from expectation, especially the expectation that it would be read like a picture book or comic? Or do I consider it a failure? If I liked the story and images less? …
of note: I like innovation. and: a disclaimer, I am by no means an expert on comics, or picture books for that matter. that literature course on “the graphic novel” felt experimental at best, and so did those years of hauling picture books home with the daughter. just the same, I am keen to learn more and engage in conversation.
Dark Horse Comics, September 2011.
Advanced Reader’s Copy (uncorrected proof) via NetGalley. This ‘review’ is my free and honest opinion on the read.
[images are Rebecca Guay, do take a look at her site]