We all know from "Coraline," "Murder Mysteries" and "Dream Hunters" how good a writer Neil Gaiman is. We also know from the "Coraline," "Murder Mysteries" and "Dream Hunters" graphic novels how good an artist P. Craig Russell is, especially at illustrating Gaiman's stories.
That successful collaboration continues with "The Graveyard Book," Gaiman's New York Times bestselling and Newberry Medal-winning novel, which Russell is adapting to comics. "The Graveyard Book: Volume 1" (of two) recently arrived from HarperCollins ($19.99), and it's just as good as its pedigree would suggest.
"Graveyard Book" is the story of Nobody Owens, a child adopted by the inhabitants of a graveyard — and perhaps by the graveyard itself — after the brutal slaughter of his family by the lethal Man Jack. Those inhabitants are mostly the spirits of the dead, but they also include Nobody's mentor, Silas (a vampire, although the text is somewhat coy on that), the mysterious Indigo Man and the dangerous Sleer. Silas and the spirits raise and educate Bod, as he's called, and as long as he remains in the graveyard he is largely protected, and able to go unseen.
That's important, because the Man Jack — who is working for evil parties unknown, with an agenda that requires Bod's death — hasn't given up his search. And even in the graveyard, Bod isn't completely safe, as he finds when he is snatched through the gateway to the City of Ghouls.
Creepy enough for you? And yet, a story that begins with multiple murders and takes place almost entirely in a haunted graveyard is also a charming coming-of-age tale. It is one of Gaiman's gifts that he can pull off this seamless blend of whimsy and the macabre.
Still, a graphic novel depends greatly on art, so it's fortunate "Graveyard Book" is graced by the presence of Russell. His lyrical, sensuous work is also a seamless mix of styles, showing influences ranging from Renaissance painting to Burne Hogarth's "Tarzan" comic strip.
Russell doesn't do all the art — it would have taken him "four or five years," he told Publishers Weekly — but he did do the layouts throughout. Then he selected artists who meshed with his own style to do a chapter each, which for the first book includes Stephen B. Scott, Scott Hampton, Tony Harris, Kevin Nowlan, Galen Showman and Jill Thompson. The result is surprisingly smooth, given the diverse hands, with Russell's sure storytelling ability making each panel on each page feel as comforting and inevitable as sunrise.
The only complaint one can imagine with "The Graveyard Book: Volume 1" is that it contains only the first five chapters and an interlude. That leaves the reader hanging breathlessly until "Volume 2" arrives in late November.
Another artist perfectly suited to his material is Darwyn Cooke, a master at bringing to life the late 1950s and early '60s, who is adapting to graphic novels the "Parker" series of crime novels by Richard Stark — a series set in the late 1950s and early '60s. The latest Stark/Cooke collaboration is "Slayground" (IDW, $17.99), and it's a gem.
Stark — a pseudonym for writer Donald Westlake — is exceptional at characterization (especially of his hard-bitten protagonist, the professional criminal Parker), creating an environment (the aforementioned "Mad Men" era) and laying out a complicated scenario in which the reader must be invested to enjoy the story. That latter part, according to "Parker" aficionados, is the real joy of the books.
In "Slayground," the premise is simple in form, but complex in detail. As a result of a robbery gone awry, Parker finds himself trapped in a Buffalo, N.Y., amusement park that is shut down for the winter. Fortunately, he has with him the fruits of the robbery. Unfortunately, a bunch of local gangsters know this, and are guarding the only exit, while sweeping the park to find him, kill him and take the money.
Where this gets complex is that Stark and Cooke lay out a map of the amusement park, then show Parker making various preparations that are obviously traps — but it's not so obvious how they're going to work. The reader (and the gangsters) spend the rest of the book finding out just how clever Parker is.
What makes this work in a graphic novel, of course, is Cooke's artwork. His clean, borderline-cartoon style is pleasant enough, but it's Cooke's attention to storytelling that really makes it sing. Yes, it's nice to look at, but more important, every panel, every shadow, every line also informs the story.