Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Graphic Novel Before Its Time

Kate Seredy's 1938 Newbery winner The White Stag tells the mythic story of the Huns and their journey from their former barren lands in Asia where they were starving to what would become their homeland and modern-day Hungary. Beginning with the Huns' leader Nimrod's appeal for direction to his god Hadur during a time of hardship, it continues with the journey of the brothers Hunor and Magyar and their people, through the leadership of Hunar's son, Bendeguz, and culminates with the battles of Bendeguz's son Attila, who led his people to the conquest of their new land. The mystical White Stag appears at key moments and shows the Huns the way.

Seredy based The White Stag on Hungarian myths related to her by her father in her childhood, and I think she made the mistake Charles J. Finger made in writing his Tales From Silver Lands; she wrote down traditional oral myths that have been passed down through countless generations without fleshing them out enough to really adapt them to their new medium.

The prose of The White Stag is spare and lyrical, if uncertainly punctuated. (I saw a number of comma splices.) The White Stag is just 94 pages long, and covers three generations' worth of action. This will tell you how sparing it is of the kind of details that make it possible for a reader to enter into the world of the story. The story itself comes across as somewhat overwrought and faintly ridiculous — it's rather like a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic with its wooden characterizations and sometimes laughable dialogue. There are certainly echoes of the Bible in The White Stag: faith moving mountains, the search for the promised land, the evolving division of one people into conflicting tribes. The quest of the Huns and Magyars is much like the Old Testament journeys of the Israelites with Attila as Charlton Heston-style Moses, and unfortunately Attila's character is no more nuanced or believable than Heston's acting. I don't know how anyone can relate to characters who aren't recognizably human. Attila, who “learned not to cry when he was but a few days old”, is seemingly a sociopath with a conviction of his own destiny. Seredy also glosses over the battles as though they were successful rugby matches — another tribe of people slaughtered or enslaved and another victorious moment for the Huns!

Perhaps the problem is that no story could be worthy of the beautiful illustrations in this book. Seredy was certainly an extremely gifted and successful illustrator. She considered herself an illustrator first and foremost, saying that she “thought in pictures”, and she illustrated Newbery Medal winner Caddie Woodlanw, and her own Newbery Honor Books The Good Master and The Singing Tree, as well as Newbery honor books Winterbound by Margery Bianco, The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes, and Young Walter Scott by Elizabeth Janet Gray. The illustrations in The White Stag are therefore very fine (you can see some of them here if you're willing to brace yourself for a high-volume recording of the Hungarian national anthem). The drawings feature idealized, muscular, hairless bodies in an Olympic-athlete state of fitness, wearing classical tunics, cloaks and robes and spike-top helmets with birds' wings adorning the sides. They look, in short, like a precursor of comic-book heroes minus the spandex. Perhaps if Seredy had been born ninety years later, The White Stag would have been a very good graphic novel.

I can accept that not all fiction needs to be character-driven and that a novel can simply be a grand epic of adventure and conquest, but it's difficult to cheer on characters who are so stylized and so ruthless. And I kept wistfully imagining what Robin McKinley would have done with this material. McKinley understands that you can make your characters the stuff of legend and send them off to have thrilling adventures, but only after you have first made them come alive.

2 comments:

Sandy D. said...

Ah, I liked this review very much. But seriously, Charlton Heston's most over-the-top acting was way better than the book.

Joel said...

If you like 30's era graphic books, you should take a look for Lynd Ward's God,s Man