Review: The Secret Of The Stone Frog
By David Nytra
Something a little different here from Toon Books. They’ve made a name for themselves in publishing some absolutely wonderful easy to read comics so far, beautiful little hardback things, 30 pages or so, usually aimed at the first reader to emerging reader group. But this is both their first black and white work and their first graphic novel proper.
Well, at 80-pages we’re in that difficult “what length is a graphic novel?” territory, but we’ll skate over that. What The Stone Frog is, is a beautifully confident debut piece, exquisitely suited to black and white, evoking so much our children will be thrilled by, and so much we’ll recognise. There’s huge bits of Alice In Wonderland type nonsense here, a theme of Little Nemo, bits of Peter Pan perhaps, smatterings of Oliver Twist possibly, definitely Wizard Of Oz, and I’m sure much much more besides.
But adult or child, this should work. The children reading it will enjoy it as a simple flight of fancy, a dash through a world of dreams. The adults will, I suspect, get something else from it, something not dissimilar to those feelings of unease in some of the works I’ve already mentioned. When anything deals in this sort of high fantasy, and especially when dreams are involved, the adult mind goes a little overboard trying to fill in all the possible references.
It all starts with two children, Leah and Alan, waking in a forest, still in their beds. Confusion leads to amazement as they travel through the forest and other enchanted worlds, guided only by the words of The Stone Frogs they meet along the way:
Which is the right way home indeed?
The children find many ways in the course of the story, meeting a veritable freakshow of strange characters, all with that every so familiar look for the older readers. Not deliberately, not in an Alan Moore League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen style, no, this is Nytra leaning heavily on classic volumes to populate his imagination I think.
So they wander, Wizard Of Oz style, following the Stone Frog path, meeting big-headed women with pet bees, foppish lions with giant riding rabbits, and many more. Some are good, some mean the children harm, it all unfolds as they travel.
And along the way, as is the way with these sort of children alone stories, the pair discover so much, gaining an independence from their adventures that the children reading always love to see.
And all the way throughNytra impresses visually, creating something of a real flight of fancy, an amazing world populated with incredible imagery, fantastical creatures, dreamscape environments. His line work is stunning, and this adult reader felt it helped to give the story a genuine sense of wonder, the monotone pages an escape from the ultra-bright colours of the real world – sort of the Oz/Kansas divide in reverse.
But he also manages to create something slightly darker at times, a genuine sense of creep, of gentle fear, as well as something of the ridiculousness in the strangest characters…
That’s part of an extended sequence when the children find themselves underground, in a strange subway station. One by one the freakshow creatures, all manner of bizarre undersea beasts dressed for a day in the office appear by the children, just waiting patiently for their train. Both grotesque and strangely, surreally comical.
The Secret Of The Stone Frog is full of interesting moments, as the children wander from artistic setpiece to artistic setpiece, and if I had to throw one criticism in here, it; would be that. It never completely gels perfectly as one story, more a series of vignettes featuring the two children. But that is easily overlooked, the visual beauty of the art, the intriguing mix of literary references wins the day. Or if you’re a child, I’d say it would be the joy of trying to guess just what strangeness is coming next.
Not the perfect graphic novel from Toon Books, but such an impressive debut, and the problems are easy to overlook.