Saturday, April 17, 2010

Book Review: Book of Ballads

The Book of Ballads
Charles Vess et. al.
Graphic Novel, Fiction

Artist Charles Vess may be best known for his collaborations with Newberry and World Fantasy Award winning author Neil Gaiman. Gaiman contributes a story to The Book of Ballads, which, as the title suggests, is a collection of Celtic ballads adapted into comics form by Vess and a number of different authors. In addition to Gaiman, the book contains stories by Jane Yolen, Sharyn McCrumb, Midori Snyder, Lee Smith, Elaine Lee, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Jeff Smith, and Emma Bull. The ballads range from Tam-Lin to Thomas the Rhymer to The False Knight on the Road to the Galtee Farmer.

I confess, I’m not a scholar of Celtic literature and music, and many of these ballads were completely new to me. Their selection shows a great deal of diversity: some are romantic, some adventurous, some dark and scary, and some hilarious. Vess’ artwork ties them all together. While he illustrates all the stories (and even wrote one himself) he skillfully alters his style appropriately to the tone of each story. For the comedic Galtee Farmer (written by Bone creator Jeff Smith) the art is lighter, broader, and more cartoony. For Charles de Lint’s Twa Corbies (set in the same contemporary urban setting as much of de Lint’s work) Vess uses a clear, straightforward style, detailed, but without a lot of moody shading or crosshatching. The historical tales, especially those in woodland settings, feature the style for which Vess is probably best known: elaborate, detailed, lush illustrations filled with shadows and mood, in which the magical feels perfectly natural seen alongside the mundane.

Another confession: I’ve been a fan of Charles Vess for decades. His art perfectly captures the idea of a world of magic and wonder existing alongside our own. He illustrated my favorite edition of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His art inspired the look of our wedding. The Book of Ballads is my favorite of all his works. The stories collected here were originally published by Vess himself, instead of being commissioned by someone else. I think a great artist will always produce their finest work when it comes from the heart, when they are allowed the freedom to produce whatever they want. The Book of Ballads is proof of that, and is a must read for any lover of classical music, literature, folklore, or art.

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