February 10, 2014

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The Story of Three Wonderful Beggars

Story from The Violet Fairy Book Anthology by Andrew Lang
Adapted and Illustrated by Aaron F. Gonzales

A rich man refuses to be kind and ends up paying for it eternally in a lengthy legend from those collected by Andrew Lang, a man whom I was previously unfamiliar.

I'm a huge fan of legends and fairy tales, which have been a part of my literary education just about as long as comic books. My mother used to read them to me, then I would read to her as part of my comprehension growth. I thought we'd actually hit most of the genres and sources, including Native American and African folklore and legend, but I don't remember ever coming across Lang's books, which Wikipedia tells me were completed in collaboration with his wife and others.*

All together, there are twelve of these things, which means I just added a ton to my already overburdened to-read list, and I'm thankful to Mr. Gonzalez for making this comic, which I found at SPX, because otherwise, I might have missed out entirely.

In the case of this particular mini-comic, Gonzalez opts for the illustrated story style rather than a straight-up adaptation. This means that on every page there's a varying amount of text and a drawing by Gonzalez that helps to visualize the ongoing narrative. It's not unlike a children's book in that regard, which will either appeal to you or not, depending on your taste.

The rich man, named Mark, opens the proceedings, sitting on a throne of riches and sporting an awesome evil dude moustache. The titular three beggars follow, with each looking different (the middle one is a bit Yoda-ish) but sadly only shown in headshots. Mark's warned of one who will inherit his worth, and he then schemes to kill the baby that threatens all he has--a storyline with echoes in many other legends, including those of several religions.

Naturally, Mark's plans all fail, in increasingly unlikely fashion, and the boy comes to work for the guy who wants to kill him. To solve the problem once and for all, Mark looks to send the boy on a task from which he can never return. Unfortunately for him (but good for fortune-telling beggars), the boy is much better at listening to others, and he's able to thwart Mark at every turn. In the end, by helping others, the boy wins the riches Mark had, while the mean miser takes on a job with very low satisfaction ratings.

Now if you've read any fairy tales at all, none of this is a surprise to you. The fun is in seeing the variations on age-old themes, as the point of every story from the Iliad to Coyote's tales is to instruct the listener. There are several lessons to come from this one, ranging from the need to share to listening to the power of kindness.

Gonzalez's role in this is to make the pictures match the story, and overall, he does a good job of it, such as showing the recurring themes with similar visuals (Mark throwing the dreaded baby away), a few of which are really funny, like when the baby grows into his hat as time passes. His depiction of the Serpent King is suitably scary, and I love the detailing on the scales, which shows a lot of time and craft.

However, a lot of the visuals are very much in the style of a rough sketch, like depictions of an open sea or an old tree. In other cases, despite having a half-page mini to work with (5 x 8), Gonzalez leaves an almost criminal amount of white space, choosing to depict things in a way that would still leave room even if he were working on a quarter-sized zine canvas. I'm not advocating for crowding the page here, but I do question why certain pictures are little more than a thumbnail versus those which take up nearly the entire page.

When Gonzalez works with the entire space, the visuals sing. Regardless of size, they do enhance the story, but being honest, the main appeal on this one is the tale itself, not so much how it's portrayed. I can get that from Project Gutenberg. When a creator opts to take a classic work and illustrate it, I do expect a bit more than just adding some pictures. Gonzalez doesn't really do that, and between that and the lack of using his entire paper canvas, this one doesn't really rise up to its potential.

I liked Gonzalez's lines, and would definitely check out something else he worked on, but I can't say I'd suggest this as a mini you need to own. However, if the idea intrigues you, you can find a PDF version of it here for $3.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have public domain books to download...

*I know, unlocked wiki = could be false. But given there are a ton of these books, sorted by color, it seems pretty plausible to me.