I couldn’t decide which of the two texts I should review this week, so I’ve elected to do short reviews of both. For starters, I have to drop a link to Faith Erin Hicks’s wonderful comic review of ParaNorman: http://www.tor.com/stories/2012/08/appreciating-the-animation-and-story-of-paranorman. The basic concept of the movie is that Norman is a boy who can see and communicate with ghosts and other forms of undead. This ability ostracizes him in his community, especially from his father, who is deeply disturbed by Norman’s habit of talking to things which (to his perspective) are not there, and the negative attention it draws from the town. His ability to talk to the undead also makes him the only person in town who can protect it from a witch’s curse after his crazy Uncle Penderghast (who can also talk to spirits) dies. What Hicks’s review really called attention to for me is the normalcy and (resigned) matter-of-fact attitude with which he approaches his ability. As Hicks says: “Norman isn’t ashamed of his weird ability to talk to the dead, nor is he intent on flying his freak flag to scare the normals.” There is a wonderful character establishing sequence at the beginning of the movie where Norman is shown walking down the street to school, pausing to politely greet thin air as he goes. After showing the audience in this way how Norman looks to the rest of the town, the perspective shifts to show what Norman sees, which is a street crowded with ghosts that he makes a point to interact with, despite being late for school. Norman simply treats the dead as though they were people, and it is this respect and dignity towards the dead that informs how Norman approaches the central conflict of the movie.
I recommend seeing ParaNorman as I did: in a theater full of children, because it will quickly quiet any doubts that might arise that the movie is too dark or the humor too black for kids’ consumption when the movie theater is filled with children’s laughter at Norman attempting to pry a book out of a dead man’s hands. The movie largely follows in this vein of black comedy, inverting some of the conventions of horror along the way. That being said, the movie does have a serious message to impart, and I freely admit to having shed a few tears when Norman discovers exactly how the curse of the town got started. See this movie.
Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke, appeared on my radar when I was visiting the Vault of Midnight in Ann Arbor and spotted their table of Eisner Award nominees. I glanced at the nominees for “Best Publication for Kids” (Zita) and “Best Publication for Young Adults” (G. Willow Wilson’s, Mystic), since I’m planning on studying Kids/YA graphic novels with female protagonists for my thesis. Being the cheap bastard I am, I took down the titles and got them through the public library instead of buying them.
The basic plot outline is that Zita and her friend Joseph are rough housing when a meteoroid strikes nearby, leaving behind a strange device with a big red button. Clearly unable to resist the allure of the Big Red Button, Zita pushes it over Joseph’s protests and ends up inadvertently sending him through a portal to a distant planet in space. Steeling herself, Zita follows in order to rescue him.
The art and design in Zita is wonderful: Hatke clearly draws inspiration from the Jim Henson school of monster/alien design, creating a varied cast of characters, all with distinct, cartoonish appearances (including a pair of hooded, humanoid chickens). One of the refreshing things about Hatke’s narrative is the agency which he gives Zita; she sets off on the quest out of a clear sense of responsibility for the part she played in putting Joseph in danger to begin with and she perseveres despite all the temptations and doubts she experiences along the way. One of the things I find really effective about Hatke’s art and narrative are the silent moments in which he allows Zita to express emotion and doubt through expression and body language. Unlike some child protagonists, Zita does not strain our suspension of disbelief by adapting and adopting her surroundings tooeasily, but at the same time, she is allowed to express emotion and vulnerability without coming off as whiny or fragile; it’s a tricky tightrope that Hatke traverses well. Likewise, the colorful cast of supporting characters does exactly that without overshadowing Zita as the protagonist.
I thoroughly enjoyed Zita the Spacegirl, and would recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of kid’s lit. Apparently the next volume, Legends of Zita, is set to come out in two weeks. This may be one I have to purchase for myself instead of simply borrowing from the library.