{book} illustrated tale: the last dragon

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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.

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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.

—————————————-

The Last DragonStory by Jane Yolen, Art by Rebecca Guay

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]

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Carl V. says:

    Rebecca Guay is an artist I thoroughly enjoy and I’ve heard good things about Yolen for years but cannot think of any time I’ve read her, unless it may have been in some fantasy anthology. This looks like something I would enjoy and I’ll need to see if my library has it. It is such a beautiful looking book.

    1. L says:

      I will be looking into Ms. Guay’s work more extensively. And most of my Yolen (other than those ‘How do Dinosaurs’ picture books) are via pieces from her collections and short stories. I believe ‘Foiled’ was her first foray into comics which I think is best received in youth. I think for Once Upon a Time Challenge I am going to read several of her tales (many of which are in picture book form).

      1. Carl V. says:

        I’m familiar with Guay from her annual inclusions in the Spectrum art books. Her stuff is always so gorgeous. Thematically and somewhat stylistically it reminds me of one of my favorite illustrators, Kinuko Y. Craft. But Guay’s style and use of color have their own personal flair. Such gorgeous work.

        1. L says:

          I will check into the Spectrum art books, as well as look into Kinuko Y. Craft… 🙂

          1. Carl V. says:

            Not sure if your family is into putting together puzzles, but you can search “puzzles” and “Kinuko Craft” on Amazon and you’ll see that a company has put out several of her book cover illustrations as puzzles. They are wonderful to work on because they are so filled with small, beautiful detail. Her covers for Patricia A. McKillip’s fantasy books are to die for.

  2. Grace says:

    This looks interesting; I saw it on NetGalley but didn’t request it because my Kindle doesn’t use color. I haven’t read many graphic novels, but this one seems like it would be good for people who are curious about the genre.

    1. L says:

      I was leaned into my Adobe Reader on my laptop, which did a fair job, but I’m certain the full-impact is in the hard copy: both in layout and color. would like to have an ereader that can handle the form and color of comics and picture books.

      The Last Dragon does seem like it would be good for people who are curious about this visual medium, especially those who would like to be more confident in understanding/enjoying the story, where sometimes a comic can seem like an Indie/Art film.

      1. Grace says:

        I don’t read many graphic novels, but when I hear about one that seems interesting I like to wait until it’s released and read it in the local B&N. Going into B&N is dangerous though because I always end up buying more books than I had intended…

        1. L says:

          B&N is dangerous. 🙂 I do much the same, especially graphic novels for the older crowd, because the library seems less interested in acquiring those with any expediency.

  3. Like Grace, I stay away from graphic novels and the like on Netgalley because of my Kindle. I’ve tried using Adobe Reader on my computer, but I despised that. Nevertheless, this book looks exactly like something I’d like. I’ve never heard of Yolen or Guay (to my knowledge), so thanks for bringing them to my attention. Guay’s art is great.

    Personally, I’ve been a comic book reader since I was a wee lad, and I still journey monthly to the comic shop to pick up my latest fancies. There’s definitely a fine line between “graphic novel” and “comic book” for me, usually involving various factors, including but not limited to depth of the story, physical layout of the story, intended market, and more. Even so, the discrepancy exists between the mediums, much to my chagrin.

    1. L says:

      as in my reply to Grace, I use my Adobe Reader for access, and it does better with some than others, but there really does need to be a better Reader–and I would love to have it.

      I hope you pick this one up and enjoy it. and I would love to know what you think, because I know you are an avid comic book reader. how do you expect the text and illustration to work in comic form?

      I use long comic interchangeably with Graphic Novel because I am still on the fence. Primarily, I think Graphic novel continues to be used as it was initially used, for marketing purposes, and to reassure comic’s form as a valid medium among those harboring negative connotations with “comic”. It also bridges “volume issues” for less avid or newer comic book readers who do not care for epistolary forms of storytelling. which makes me think about how television is moving back into mini-series and 90-minute episodes, and how much more popular it has become to get the dvd set versus following during the season. I digress.

      1. I don’t think I would despise Adobe Reader so much if my computer wasn’t such a cranky and eccentric geriatric. Anyway… My mind thinks of comics & graphic novels as something along the lines of “stories told simultaneously with pictures and words and text bubbles and callouts, superheroes optional.” I typically think of this in a self-made genre dubbed “graphica,” though I tend to shy away from applying genre as much as possible.

        I do like your term “long comic.” Perhaps I’ll have to start incorporating that in my mind.

        As for my expectations for text & illustration? Honestly, I abandoned a comic run once because each issue opened up with several pages of text with very few drawings, attempting to establish plot and/or character. If I’d been reading this as a monthly thing I may not have cared. As it was, I was reading as a combined TPB, and these sections were cringe-worthy at best. I plan on finishing this series eventually, as it’s critically acclaimed for a Marvel comic run, but who knows when I’ll do that.

  4. tuulenhaiven says:

    Such beautiful illustrations! They remind me a bit of Trina Schart Hyman’s work. I read a ton of Jane Yolan when I was younger, every book I could find by her. She’s indeed a skilled storyteller. This looks like a very intriguing project.

  5. Kailana says:

    I saw this on NetGalley, but I haven’t really branched into graphic novels on my e-reader… I could always read them on my computer, though. I have seen this book around and will want to read it eventually.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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