Jim Henson's The Storyteller and Marjane Satrapi's The Sigh Are Modern Fairy Tale Classics [Archaia Advance Review]

If there’s one thread that connects the two titles being released from Archaia this week, it’s that both are entirely new takes on classic stories. In fact, that’s exactly what both of them are, so we’ll try not to repeat ourselves too much! Mild spoilers ho:

The Sigh

Though Marjane Satrapi is justly best known for her autobiography Persepolis, she hasn’t exactly sat on her hands and twiddled her thumbs for the past few years, because that would be physically impossible. Instead, she’s continued to explore many of the same themes and settings as her first graphic novel success in books like Chicken With Plums, and now the illustrated children’s book The Sigh.

Make no mistake, this is not in fact a graphic novel… At 56 pages, its not even really a novel, actually. That said, for anyone looking for an off-beat classic fairy tale that doesn’t shy away from dark subjects (you know, like fairy tales used to do?) this is a great new book that can be shared with the whole family.

The book uses elements from numerous fairy tales, sets them in a 1001 Nights-style Arabia, and mixes all the parts to make a whole that is eminently familiar, but also wholly original. Rose, the third daughter of a merchant, is sold to a being called The Sigh in exchange for the seed of a Blue Bean. Once she arrives at The Sigh’s palace, she embarks on an epic adventure that may or may not end in true love and happiness. I’ll let you guess whether it does.

It’s really the familiarity here that works to Satrapi’s advantage. She’s clearly completely familiar with both the European and Arabian fairy tale tradition, and any reader will have at least one, “Wait, isn’t that [insert famous story here]?” without the book ever feeling derivative.

Satrapi’s illustrations are also as confident as ever, and here complimented by color – a nice, new touch. I’d add that I almost wish the book had been done in more of an Arabian style, with the margins augmenting the design of the book as they do on the covers. Without the framing – which, granted, is a little more common in American children’s books – the book feels a little sparse.

It’s a little quibble, though, as the dark humor throughout will interest adults, and the timelessness of the story will draw in kids. You can happily put this on your shelf next to Bros. Grimm and Arabian Nights… And I’m sure many families will do just that this holiday season.

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller

Okay, quick flashback for those of you too young to remember. In the late eighties and early nineties, there was a show called Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which featured an old man and his puppet dog telling the viewing audience classic stories by the fire. Sometimes the show was on as part of the Jim Henson Hour, sometimes by itself… But it was always a special kind of magic.

As mentioned in the notes of Archaia’s new, enchanting collection of original comic book Storyteller tales, the idea was to bring the tradition of storytelling forward to a new generation, to really capture the sense that this story was being told to YOU… And not just a show you were watching on TV. The best stories in this collection do just that.

First of all, the line-up is nothing short of spectacular, with new stories by Katie Cook, Colleen Coover, Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler, and many more. There’s even a longer story from the book’s Editor Nate Cosby which adapts an unused script from Anthony Minghella – the beloved Director/Writer who penned the bulk of the Storyteller episodes. You can see, in that last one, why it may have never made it to screen… It’s extremely dark and disturbing, very weird, and ultimately probably unfilmable.

That, you see, is the magic of comics. Though The Storyteller wasn’t shabby when it came to special effects, this book embraces the budget free aspect to emphasize the storytelling. A frog faces down an enormous army; a monstrous dragon guards a cave of gold; and a boy battles his evil baby sister in the heart of the Sun. You know, stuff like that.

And graphically, the book embraces various styles and tones throughout, which alone makes it essential reading. On the story side, if I have one major quibble, it’s that the “thing transforms into human and goes on great adventure!” story is a bit overused in the collection… Though I do also understand that’s in a LOT of stories, so the storytellers here can be excused overusing one trope.

Like any collection, some stories are going to work better than others. I personally gravitated to Coover’s fun tale of a girl’s dreams all hinging on a pail of milk – it has a great punch to it. And Chris Eliopoulos and Mike Maihack’s story, which gives The Storyteller’s Dog a chance to explain the classic conflict between dogs and cats is a delightful doozy.

Last note, we should mention the production design, which is stunning, makingt he whole book look like a pored over, worn volume of tales just like the one The Storyteller himself might have. I’ve only read it in a PDF version, but I’m excited to see what it looks like in print. I hope you are, too.

The Sigh and Jim Henson’s The Storyteller both hit comic book shops from Archaia on December 14th.

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