Anyone who's a fan of myths, legends, fables, and fairytales is obviously going to be high on my radar screen, and that's how I first got interested in Kel McDonald's work, through the first myth collection she edited, Cautionary Fables & Fairytales: Europe Edition. It was a great selection of lesser-known stories and the quality of the art and adaptations was extremely strong.
Now Kel has her new anthology out, Cautionary Fables & Fairytales: Africa Edition. If anything, this one is even better than the first, and features McDonald, along with Faith Erin Hicks, Carla Speed McNeil, and a host of others.
The collection begins with a bang, as Nicole Chartrand opens with The Disobedient Daughter Who Married a Skull, in which the title character is fooled by a love-sick skull into running away and marrying him, only to find he's not just anybody--he's a no-body!* In danger of being eaten, she narrowly escapes with the help of the skull's kindly mother. The illustrations are lively, with just the right amount of exaggeration (the skull hops around comically with hearts surrounding it, for example), and there's a definite link between the original story and the art, which shares a bit of manga influences. I loved the layouts on this one, and it was one of my favorites in the book.
Another highlight was The Story of the Thunder and the Lightning, adapted by Kate Ashwin. Another tale of a child who isn't all he should be, Lightning is forever being yelled at by his mother, Thunder. They are thrown out of every town, until the Rain takes pity on them, and allows them to move into the sky--where Thunder forever chases the Lightning. A classic "Explain Nature" story, Ashwin shows Lightning unable to live normally, always getting into trouble or causing extreme devastation. The things Ashwin portrays all relate to lightning damage, too, which is clever, regardless of whether that's in the original text or her own idea. There's a very human element to their plight, and when we finally see Rain, she's definitely god-like. Great stuff!
An Egyptian tale is told in Isis and the Names of Ra, adapted by Nina Matsumoto and Cameron Morris. One of the more complexly illustrated stories, the pair show Isis as being a bit on the ruthless side as she works to get a boon from the greatest of the gods, allowing her to become the healer we think of when we see her in modern portrayals. Ra's pain is well-drawn by Matsumoto, and the story often breaks against standard panel construction, again making it stand out in the anthology by nature of some Eisner-like layouts. Strong storytelling, and probably the myth readers would be the most familiar with going into the collection.
Kel McDonald's contribution is a short piece about another dodgy marriage decision, this time involving a lion. The woman's brother-in-law is convinced it's true, despite ridicule, but is able to prove it, with the only question left being--are the kids lions, too? It's an odd duck of a story, really. I'm not sure what the allegory was supposed to be (a traitorous husband?), but Kel adapts it well. She concentrates on the feelings and emotions of the characters, playing the story straight using realistic depictions from start to finish.
Chief's Heads adapted by Sloane Leong takes a story from Zimbabwe that is really clever and shows the value of heeding advice. A woman goes off to be a bride, but doesn't follow the rules. In the end, she fails, and actually gets to live, which is kinda shocking for one of these folk tales. Her sister tries, but this time, takes time to do things right. When confronted by the Chief, she's found to be a worthy match. Leong, like McDonald, opts for realistic depictions of the characters and lets the panels flow a bit, just as was done in Isis and the Names of Ra. There's a rhythm to the pages, following the theme and repetition of the story, and it works very, very well.
Faith Erin Hicks closes things out with The Stranger, which she moves into outer space, which is really cool. Taking the theme of her story, she shows how an arrogant leader can fall at the hands of someone he least suspects, leading to a game-changing situation. I've been a big fan of Hicks for a long time, but this might be the best artwork I've seen from her. She blends the space elements with African flavor well, and sets the stage for the crucial moment just right. There's some amazing detail work (outfits are depicted right down to the button), the action moves quickly from panel to panel, and she uses heavy black inking to great effect. An amazing job and a perfect closer to the book.
In addition to the two Cautionary Fables and Fairytales books, Kel should also have copies of a few of her solo/collaborations, such as Fame and Misfortune and From Scratch. I expect some of the other anthology work she's contributed to (Sleep of Reason, for example) may also be available.
Kel is a very talented creator and editor, and I hope you'll stop by to see her at Rose City when you are at the show!
Can't make it to Rose City? You'll find Kel McDonald on the web here.
*Sorry, that was awful. But I had to do it.