Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fraggle Rock Volume 2 Tails and Tales

The only creatures who like radishes.
Written by Various Writers, including Katie Cook and Jake T. Forbes
Illustrated by Various Artists, including Ross Campbell, Katie Cook, and Chandra Free
Archaia

Read your cares away in this set of stories from the world of Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock.  Join Gobo, Red, Boober, Wembley, Mokey, and all the supporting characters you remember as they learn about life and try to make the world a little better than they left it.

Fraggle Rock was a different animal from the Muppet Show.  Instead of just allowing the characters to be themselves and using those personalities to skewer popular culture, Henson and company made a conscious decision to try and give their worldview through a set of puppets.  The result was a show that, in my opinion, was enjoyable but entirely too preachy.  It was like a sitcom from the 1980s set perpetually on "a very special episode."  Yes, there were cool moments, but like Brian Henson's Dinosaurs, spent far too much time critiquing the world in a hit you on the head manner and not enough time just trying to tell a good story.

It doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the series, mind you, but when I re-watched it as an adult, I was disappointed by how...ordinary the show was.  It was missing the magic and lacking the adult/kid enjoyment split that the Muppets always had.  I was curious to see how the folks Archaia had rounded up would do with the material, especially given how well Roger Langridge had adapted the Muppet Show a few years ago.

The answer is amazingly well.  In fact, I think I like these cartoon stories a lot better than I did the original series.  Archaia's taken the concepts that Henson envisioned and nuanced the idea so that the message is blended into the story, rather than dominating it.  As a result, I found myself captivated by the Fraggle World in a way that I had not when I watched the TV show again.

Let me give you an example.  In "The Meaning of Life" by Joe LeFavi and Heidi Arnhold, Gobo finds a map that leads potentially to the meaning of life.  The way is long and dangerous, but as long as he has his friends, Gobo is fine.  But what if the road requires him to give up all that he has loved?  A timely postcard from his uncle, Travelling Matt, may hold the truth to Gobo's quest.  We know what the answer will be, but the story is structured in such a way to throw the final answer into at least probable doubt.  There's a message in the story--life is nothing without friends--but it's not beaten into the reader.  Instead, it's craftily inserted into the narrative from LeFavi and given key facial expressions from Arnhold.

That's the way most of these stories work.  At worst, they're cute, and at best, they tell a lesson that's gently included in a narrative that feels genuine.  Wembley can't dream, so other Fraggles try to help him.  Red has to be ahead, but can she win by being a loser?  Boober's worrying nearly causes him to miss an important party.  These are all ideas that have messages attached to them, but they aren't forced in any way.

I really had a good time reading these tales.  I like that while there is some consistency in character design, each artist is given enough room to put their own stamp on things.  Chandra Free's soft, flowing lines and refusal to obey strict laws of anatomy are just as welcome as Arnhold's tight designs.  Katie Cook can make the Trash Heap resemble a cross between Gronk and his adoptive mother, while the team of Caravan Studios opts for a look hewing closer to the original series.  Ross Campbell is even given permission to give Red what looks like a triple afro and it works just fine.  The key is that while the views of the characters might change, the essence of the Fraggles, both visually and in their actions, remains constant.  (Interestingly enough, an animated-style look for the Fraggles was rejected, as noted in the back of the book.  The guideline is apparently to keep them looking like puppets.  I agree.)

Overall, this was a solid and enjoyable anthology of stories from a publisher I am starting to really get into.  I'd easily recommend this book for both parents and children, and especially for fans of Fraggle Rock.  You won't be disappointed, residents of Outer Space!  I really hope we get a third volume soon, and I'm definitely going hunting for volume one.

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