Friday, January 08, 2010

Malice

Not unlike EC's Crypt Keeper, the character called Tall Jake hosts a series of comic book stories. They appear in a comic called Malice and, like the old EC horror books, feature a number of seemingly unrelated vignettes where the protagonists are put through all sorts of hellish tests. Unlike the EC stories, though, the ones in Malice are incomplete -- the stories jump from one to another almost at random, sometimes leaving off tales without every returning to see their conclusion. Other times dropping into the midst of stories with no explanation ever given.

Malice, according to all official channels, doesn't exist. No one ever finds it by simply picking it up off the racks at a local comic shop. Even if you ask the store owner, he'll tell you the book is just a rumor.

And once someone DOES find a copy, it's temporary at best. Once the protective envelope it comes in is broken, the ink on the pages begins to fade. After a few days, it's gone entirely leaving only a comic full of empty paper. And don't bother trying to photocopy or scan it before then; scans and copies always turn out totally blank.

The stories are always signed by the artist, Grendel. But no one knows anything about him. No one has even seen him! He allegedly uses recently missing children as the models for his characters.

Tall Jake is allegedly real as well. And, by performing a simple ritual, including calling for him to take you away, he's usually more than happy to remove you from the real world and take you into the dark shadows seen in Malice.

But, of course, all of this is merely heresay.

Isn't it?

That's the basic premise of Chris Wooding's new young adult novel, Malice. It's a really clever concept, further enhanced by several "gimmicks" within the book itself. Most notably, several of the passages within the book are rendered as comic book pages. What the reader sees are, in effect, the contents of the comic stories being talked about throughout the book. Which is why I'm surprised I haven't seen any real discussion of the book in comic fandom. (Although it shouldn't surprise me, given how little attention the Babymouse series has gotten around here.)

Wooding turns in a really excellent story. Although it's clearly written for a young adult audience, he does a great job establishing characters and plot points and motivation. Typically, when I think of YA novels, I think of trite crap like Harry Potter but Wooding's book here is really, really good. (Yes, I'm glad so many people have enjoyed Harry Potter, but I didn't find it anything but banal.) Malice has some exceptionally clever turns to it, and the author makes some fairly bold writing decisions. The characters all have solid development behind them, and their motivations all make sense.

That said, however, I was disappointed with the comic portions of the book. They're still written by Wooding and flow surprisingly seamlessly with the text portions of the book. But I felt illustrator Dan Chernett's storytelling abilities were rather lacking, and several scenes were rather difficult to decipher. I've looked at some of his portfolio pieces and he definitely has a lot of drawing talent, but the panel to panel and page to page flow doesn't always work that well. There were a couple of places where I wasn't sure what exactly had happened, until it was referenced later in the text. Seriously, I had two distinct, "Oh, so THAT'S what happened back there!" moments stemming from the comic portions.

The "gimmicks" I mentioned largely fall along the lines of changing fonts and font sizes, and manipulating page layouts to affect the way the story is read. They're used judiciously and to good effect, I think. Kudos to Wooding and his uncredited editor for their work on those. This was definitely NOT a book that could've been set up from a simple Word document, and Wooding uses the unusual alterations to yield excellent results. I was especially pleased to see this after my initial dismissal of the (in my opinion) excessively embossed cover.

This was a great, and fairly quick, read and I'm interested to see what Wooding does for a sequel. (The back page announces that the second book, Havoc, is "coming soon.") I really rather enjoyed Malice, despite my problems with the comic portions. (Which is why I was initially interested in the book.) Definitely worth picking up if you've got a YA reader in your life, and not too bad for you big kids too.

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