Sean Maher's Quality Control

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Top Shelf Week: Spiral-Bound

Spiral-Bound is the first major project from Aaron Renier, an all-ages book that brings a sense of character and charm that should appeal to adults and tickle everyone somewhere cuddly (and embarrassing for us tough guys).



In a town inhabited entirely by animals, ranging in species from tiny wee birds to huge humpback whales, a whole hell of a lot is going on.

A young elephant named Turnip struggles with the artistic impulse and an unbearable, heart-breaking conflict of desires. Content to make faces out of the ingredients of his sandwich, he’s pushed into a “sculpture camp” by a friend, who suggests he use clay, and then forced to live up to his father’s hero, a marble sculptor. He’s horribly sensitive to criticism, and yet he desperately wants to do something new, something that’s his and only his. He’s a bit of a crybaby, but the subtle strokes in the character development are amazing considering the “kiddie” vibe to most of the book.

A number of other characters are really fun and diverse in personality – Turnip’s friend, a dog named Stucky, labors away at his secret project to build a submarine; a young rabbit named Ana infiltrates a high-security underground newspaper, hungry to do some real investigative reporting and uncover a huge scoop; a rhino named Pete works double shifts as another employee of the newspaper and as a DJ in the local band Kodiak & Calico.

Meanwhile a storm is brewing – Ms. Skrimshaw, the humpback whale who teaches the sculpting class from inside her giant mobile water tank, has incurred the torches-and-pitchforks wrath of the town’s parents by suggesting the children exhibit their sculptures in a show she wants located by the pond, where an Evil Terrible Monster dwells, waiting for its chance to eat all the children.

At every opportunity, Renier has chosen an animal species that reflects (or contrasts) an important personality trait in the given character; think Maus, but with a fair bit more subtlety than the simplistic cats-and-mice thing.

The various plot threads – all character driven, which is really satisfying – are all resolved in a kid-friendly, happy ending sort of way, but without making the book feel like junk food. There’s a relaxed, ambling mood to the storytelling here, but Renier uses that voice without sacrificing the import of the story being told.

I have a few stylistic quibbles– I’ve gotten sensitive, for example, to clarity in storytelling when it comes to panel arrangement. Two smaller panels should not be vertically stacked to the left of a larger panel, for example – after reading the small panel in the upper-left spot, it’s not instinctively clear whether to move to the right and read the big panel or to move down and read the smaller one. That particular layout is used a few times in this book, and while the pages tend to be simple enough that the eye naturally picks up on what the sequence of images should be, it can be off-putting to folks who haven’t trained themselves to read comics.

Really, though, that’s a minor thing that Renier can easily learn from and apply to his next project, which given the quality to be found here (at a pretty solid price point, too), I’ll be eagerly awaiting.

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