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Tall: Great American Folktales
Edited by Don Lemke (individual story credits below)

Stone Arch Books
January 1, 2012 / 978-1434240682
Tweener - Pre-teen / Fairy Tales, Folk Tales & Myths (Graphic Novel)

Reviewed by Beth E. McKenzie

Tall: Great American Folktales brings the stories of my youth to a new generation of readers. The cover graphic gives a clever nod to the four stories contained within: wood grain on the "T", rope on the "A", rail on the first "L" and an apple core on the last "L".

The first is Paul Bunyan. I don't know the name of the graphic style used but it reminds me of Ren and Stimpy or the Wild Thornberry's. Everybody has a slightly crazed look like they are going to throw up their hands and run screaming into the bush any minute. I think kids will love it but it is distracting to me.

Next is Pecos Bill. This graphic style is what I associate with movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or classic Loonie Toons. There is more realism than in the Paul Bunyan graphics, but this style is by no means realistic; you would never mistake it for a photograph. I don't know the name of the style either, but the drawings are part of the story and enhance the telling.

The third story has its roots in a real man, John Henry, and the style of illustration is very realistic although it does lean toward caricature. The style reminds me of political newspaper cartoons in that key characters have a larger over-detailed head compared to the rest of the illustration. We can see that people have all of their fingers (they don't in Paul Bunyan) and their bodies are in proportion to the surrounding world (they aren't in Pecos Bill). Even John Henry, who is considered a "giant of a man", looks very large ala Arnold Schwarzenegger as opposed to freakishly fictional. Again the drawings are part of the story and help tell it.

The final story is of another real man, John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. I find it ironic that the manga style was used for this story. I normally really like the manga style but didn't feel it was in synch with what was being said (manga is Japanese for comic), although I am glad to see the style being expanded beyond the realm of magic and monsters. Again I thought the art was distracting to the story, especially because he wear a pot on his head and there is no explanation (yes, I know why) but think kids will love the colors, animals and expressions.

Folktales/faketales don't always have much of a plot, but they are supposed to have a message. The John Henry tale suffers the most in this respect in the retelling. Basic to this story so many years ago were the tensions between the white and black characters. In this version it is a salesman that convinces the rail boss to try his steam engine. In the original it is the white rail boss trying to figure out how to cut costs and eliminate his black rail driving crew that seeks out the engine. The lesson taught in the hundred year old version is that it doesn't matter whether the Bosses own you or not, they only care about getting rich; and now that you are free you have to take care of yourself. It is still a good lesson for all of us.

The Johnny Appleseed legend has been sanitized to take out the most important part-his mission! Why is he wandering the American Midwest? Johnny was an itinerant preacher, a missionary, and an entrepreneur! Giving away the apple trees was his marketing tool- his corporate brand if you will. The trees bought his dinner and bed for the night and gave him the opportunity to talk about the Gospel of the New Testament. He wasn't just some hobo wandering around giving away trees. He had a purpose and the trees were a means to that end, another good lesson that we could all use.

I understand why the traditional stories evolve. Paul Bunyan is a Great Northwest story. There is no Great Northwest anymore. The original Paul Bunyan (ala 1830) was the meanest lumberjack there was and his success was a direct result of his meanness. He cheated his men and beat the chore boy. It wasn't until lumber-jacking was a thing of the past that he became beloved. Now we have made him endearing and heroic, running all the way to Louisiana to kill the skeeter-bees. In the original story he brought the bees into his northwestern camp to kill the giant mosquitoes, but they interbred into a worse threat for humans. So now instead a lesson about protecting against invasive species we have another episode of Swamp Monsters and global appeal.

The final irony is that Tall: Great American Folktales, is printed in China. I'm sure there is a lesson we need learn in that as well.

Reviewer's Note: This volume gathers together four previously published graphic novels.
Reviewed 2012