February 18, 2010

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Salt Water Taffy Volume 1

Written by Matthew Loux
Illustrated by Matthew Loux
Oni Press

Remember going on family vacations, or the vacations you take with your family now? Did your parents ever have a place they liked to go that looks awful but ended up awesome?

That's the premise of Salt Water Taffy, a series by Matthew Loux that's now in its third volume. Jack and Benny are brothers who, at first, aren't too sure about the summer vacation plans of their writing father. No TV? Air that smells like fish? Sounds like a horrible place to revel in your freedom!

But once the boys notice something strange on the beach and meet up with Angus O'Neil, a salty man of the sea who knows the secrets lurking about Chowder Bay, everything changes. Soon our two heroes are searching for "Old Salty", a legendary creature that has a hatred of humanity--and a thing for salt water taffy. (Who can blame it for that?) Can they help out Angus before it's too late?

I like most of the books that I read, as most long-time readers know. But only some books bring me a sense of joy and wonder. Salt Water Taffy is one of those books.

From the opening pages of realistic complaining to the taste of fresh salt water taffy to learning to appreciate the wonder of imagination, this book is everything I ever wanted out of my childhood, right up to the idea that talking animals and tale-tale legends were true. How many times did I stalk the woods hoping to find Bigfoot, with my friend Jimmy right by my side? How often did I hope that maybe there really was a talking animal out there?

Matthew Loux clearly felt the same way as I--and many, many others--did, and he went and wrote a series of books where it all comes true. Best of all, he makes it seem completely normal within the story, via Angus's adult belief in the idea of monsters and talking crustaceans. I can't stress enough how cleanly the story changes from normal world we might live in to magical world with talking animals bent on destruction.

This is not a Harry Potter or Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe situation where the boys discover a way into a world unlike our own. This is an average New England town in every way--it just happens to have Seagulls that play detective. It reminds me a bit of Stephen King's storytelling style. Loux and King take the ordinary and transform it into the extraordinary by slipping in the fantastic elements rather than shoe-horning them into the narrative. (Loux manages to do it in a lot less words, though!)

Salt Water Taffy would be a pretty good book if it were just a fun story about a creature lurking about a town. However, Loux gives us some of the most enjoyable characters I've read in a long time. Jack and Benny are the perfect brother pairing, alternating between working together and fighting for attention. Argus is the safe and quirky adult that spurs on their adventures and sense of wonder.

Even their parents are cool rather than annoying, a refreshing change of pace in a book like this. Mom is the anchor around which the insanity revolves and dad is a quirky writer who encourages their imagination while trying to be a good father. If he fails, it's in a touching way, rather than for laughs at his expense. They are all people you want to see more of after the book is over. (Fortunately, there are 2 sequels after this book!) Loux's Chowder Bay is a complete world the reader wants to return to again and again. That's very impressive, considering the book is only 96 pages long.

Matthew Loux's art relies heavily on thick black outlines, such as the ones you see on the cover. His figures are angular, but still manage to move cleanly across the page. Because of the drawing style, it often feels like Loux has caught them at a point of movement you might not normally see, such as a leg extended a bit too high or an arm gesticulating wildly. He also likes to use a lot of solid blacks, too, especially to conceal things from the reader. Everyone also gets a pointed chin that curls just a bit, a drawing quirk I think is kinda cute.

I liked Loux's Sidescrollers, so I wasn't surprised to enjoy Salt Water Taffy. What I was not expecting, however, was how much I liked it. Within a few pages, I was absorbed into its world and glad I had volume two nearby to read. Oni has these listed at a very affordable price, but I'd recommend this no matter what. It's a book that an adult can enjoy as a look back or that you could easily give a teen and have them relate to Jack and Benny. I would not be a bit surprised at all to see this one go on my list of favorite reads for 2010. This gets my wholehearted recommendation!!