Graphic Youth: The Storm in the Barn

Posted by on October 15th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


©2010 Matt Phelan.


This is the second of an ongoing series of essays and reviews about comics for young readers — which we just thought of a name for. The first, by Anna Merino, appeared here.


The Storm in the Barn
By Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press; 204 pp.
Color hardcover; $24.99
ISBN: 9780763636180

The Storm in the Barn is a solo work from children’s book illustrator Matt Phelan. It’s an atmospheric story of a young boy’s trials, both unsurprising and very surprising, in the dust-choked Kansas of 1937. As a young reader’s graphic novel, it conveys an appropriately gratifying and uplifting message for its primary audience.

Protagonist Jack is made to feel useless around the family farm. His lot in life is largely limited to being the target of bullies and the consumer of tall tales, some of which involve his fabulous namesake. Eventually, Jack saves the day incredibly. Along the way are nice, credible set pieces and deft touches. One is the introduction of a new pathology caused by the environmental catastrophe, that of “dust dementia,” a handy notion as situations grow more desperate and Jack’s actions more unusual.

This is an attractive book. It shows Phelan’s pleasing, open, readily accessible style to advantage. Softened lines and fuzzy washes set the desired mood with the pared and contrasting palette aiding considerably, especially establishing the browned, blown environments as well as shrouded or darkened interiors. Action sequences benefit from a clear choreography.

At the same time there’s a sense that scenes and visions, even beclouded ones, are overly emblematic and under-delineated. Even for cartoon shorthand some rendering may be just too short, particularly faces, particularly around noses.

I’m not sure how young a reader would have to be before legitimate questions about the narrative start to intrude (“Daddy, why isn’t the little boy crippled to death when he falls ass over teacups off the tower?”). This is a long story, prolonged, really (fully three panels of lying in bed, looking at the sheets). The general momentum resembles too-solicitous storyboarding more than it does crisp, compelling comics. At some point during the extended buildup, more than daddy is going to get antsy for the climactic, foreordained confrontation.


©2010 Matt Phelan.


Phelan would like to make much of — and make use of the cover from — a conflation of reality and fantasy. He even begins with an invocation, quaint and creaky even for the ’30s, linking the two: “Every theory of the course of events in nature is necessarily based on some process of simplification of the phenomena and is to some extent therefore a fairy tale,” credited to one Sir Napier Shaw in his Manual of Meteorology.

This opportunistic confusion subverts legitimate narrative strength because fantasy can’t compete.

Phelan is quite good at depicting the plight of the afflicted, be they individuals, families or the community. Here he is authoritative and persuasive, in part because of the strength of the source material he has chosen to guide him. His depiction of a historically factual rabbit roundup and its aftermath in particular is evocative and gripping.

The hunt and slaughter is the emotional high point of the book. In contrast Jack’s astonishing showdown feels like contrivance and cheat. Likewise the startling and startlingly sentimental one-eighty of his father in the denouement takes on an unanticipated happy-ever-after hangover (unless, ominously, dust dementia includes severe swings in temperament and demeanor). With Storm in the Barn, Phelan proves himself to be appreciably more skilled at capturing aspects of realism than he is at making stuff up, regardless of what he thinks kids might otherwise need to hear.


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