Friday, August 29, 2014

Copper by Kazu Kibuishi

In our middle school library, which is heavily frequented by boys, there are a few authors whose books never seem to touch the shelves before being checked out again. Chief among them are graphic novelists Jeff Smith (the Bone series), Doug TenNapel (Cardboard, Bad Island), and Kazu Kibuishi (the Amulet series).

I'm always hoping these guys will release another dang book -- so when I realized that I'd somehow missed Kibuishi's 2010 collection of his webcomic Copper, published by Scholastic, I ordered it right away.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this slim volume with a cute boy and his neurotic-looking but equally cute dog on the cover. What I got was a fantastic collection of short stories and one-page vignettes that demanded more time to read than I'd planned.

Copper is a boy -- or is he a man, rendered small to reflect his childlike spirit? -- whose sole companion is his dog, Fred. Copper is brave in a a reckless sort of way, and he is also recklessly optimistic. He wants to believe that crazy things are possible. Fred is cautious, worried, and battling an existential crisis. Copper wants to go check things out, and Fred wants to wait and see. The bright-eyed boy tends to get his way, and the result is a quiltwork of adventure and misadventure, both real and imagined.

I tried to read it as a kid and found myself thinking about Calvin and Hobbes, especially in the scenes where Copper and Fred dream themselves into wild escapades. (They seem to have plenty of wild waking adventures as well, and I spent a good portion of this book wondering what was real and what was dream.) If I follow that line of thought, Copper is a grown-up Calvin who has absorbed the best of his tiger friend's philosophical maturity... and Fred is Hobbes crossed with a healthy dose of Eeyore.

Reading it as an adult, I was drawn in by the surprising depth of emotion captured in the short pieces. Copper often seems chipper and carefree, but his dreams are haunted by a sad girl trapped in a bubble, and his nights and days are painted over a backdrop of loneliness and a yearning for something more. Fred, meanwhile, is wrestling with his sense of his own mortality and his fears that no one cares enough to even notice him. Is Copper's audacity really a frantic attempt to get to an adult life he fears he'll never have? Is Fred's reticence really a half-conscious attempt to slow the march of time? A better mainstream cartoon for comparison might be Family Guy, with its moral underpinning in the forms of canine Brian Griffin.

What you're wondering is, is this book right for middle school guys (or high school guys, or....)? I submit that the answer is yes. It isn't necessarily written "for" my rampaging hoards of eleven-year-old boys, but they'll pick it up and they'll read it. They won't understand all of it -- they'll possibly miss the deep stuff entirely as they rush to soak in the gorgeous imagery and daring exploits. But I think seeds will be planted, and if they return to Copper as an older teen, as a man, as fathers -- why, I think they'll find that it's a pretty dang literary work of sequential art.

(Speaking of art: hands-on types will love Kibuishi's "behind the scenes" section at the end of the book. It was accessible, entertaining, and illuminating -- a great resource for the budding graphic artist.)

Review cross-posted at DYHJ.


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