Friday, January 16, 2015

Erstwhile: Untold Tales from the Brothers Grimm 1 and 2 by Gina Biggs, Louisa Roy, Elle Skinner

I discovered these as a webcomic earlier in 2014. I noticed that they had a collection in a book but I was perfectly happy reading them online. Then I saw that the second collection was coming out, with one of my most favorite fairy tales, Snow White and Rose Red. I knew I had to have them and I might as well get I did! I also bought a set for a friend.


Each of these tales stays pretty close to the original - the added dimensions come from the art, the expressions of the characters, and the diversity pictured.

"Maid Maleen" is adapted by Gina Biggs and illustrated by Louisa Roy. A young girl refuses to marry according to her father's wishes, having fallen in love with another prince. Furious, she is shut up in a tower for seven years, during which time her country is devastated. When she and her maid escape, they end up as scullery maids in her beloved prince's kingdom, where he is about to marry another princess - who is hideously ugly. She threatens Maid Maleen to help in her disguise but in the end Maleen has her prince and the false princess is suffers her own punishment. Yes, her head is chopped off. Roy's art is soft with lots of pastel and earth colors. I especially loved how she actually ages her protagonist from an innocent little girl to a determined and experienced woman.

"The Bird, the Mouse, and the Sausage" adapted by Gina Biggs and illustrated by Elle Skinner. This is one of the quirkier of Grimm's tales. The titular characters have a happy life, each with a different duty - the bird gathers firewood, the mouse hauls water, and the sausage seasons the stew. When the bird becomes unhappy with his lot and demands they change jobs, they all end up dead. (I didn't say it was a happy story). Skinner's art has more of what I would think of as a children's illustrative quality, with broad lines, rich backgrounds, and less expressive faces.

"The Little Shroud" adapted and illustrated by Gina Biggs. This is one of the short, quasi-religious Grimm tales. A woman is devastated at her child's death, more so when his ghost appears, weeping to her every night. Finally, the ghost tells her it cannot rest in its shroud until she stops weeping and she manages to contain her grief. This is one that definitely makes more sense in the context of the tumultuous society and constant wars of the time period - with a high rate of infant mortality, parents had to accept death and move on to survive. Biggs' art is my favorite of the three with vivid colors, strong lines, and expressive faces. This story features a dark-skinned mother and child.

"The Farmer's Clever Daughter" adapted and illustrated by Gina Biggs. A farmer's clever daughter attracts the notice of the king and eventually marries him; but things don't go smoothly and he banishes her. However, she's more than a match for the king and cleverly manages to keep her beloved king and better the lot of the villagers as well. An author's note says this is the story that inspired the Erstwhile project and the first story that they did. This is one that really depends on the artwork. Just reading the story, yes, the farmer's daughter is clever and beats the king at every turn, but to modern sensibilities the king is a pretty nasty character and it's hard to understand why she would be in love with him. With Biggs' romantic, lush artwork, we see a determined and upbeat girl who falls for a king who's got a good heart, but is immature and isolated from his people and makes hasty decisions. And he really, really doesn't understand her - he spends a lot of the story with a bewildered, what-have-I-gotten-myself-into? expression. Once he realizes his wife truly loves him and stops feeling threatened by her being smarter than him, the story ends, there is a happy ending for all.

"The Old Man and His Grandson" adapted by Gina Biggs, illustrated by Louisa Roy. This is a brief didactic tale; an unpleasant couple isolate their aging father because of his inability to eat tidily at the table. When they find their son making a trough for when they are old, they are repentant and restore their father to a place at the table. The art is all in pale tans and browns and has a light, sketchy feel.

"A Tale with a Riddle" adapted and illustrated by Gina Biggs. Three women are turned into flowers, but a clever husband regains his wife. This is one of those tales that's rather fragmented - why were they turned into flowers? Why was one allowed to go home? What happened to the other two women? It has lots of gorgeous, swirling, colorful art though and features a dark-skinned couple triumphing over evil magic with cleverness.

"The Sweet Porridge" adapted and illustrated by Gina Biggs. This is one of the "magic table gone wrong" stories - a starving mother and daughter are given a magic porridge bowl, but when the mother forgets the right words the whole town is swamped with porridge. The art really makes this story, featuring a romantically slender mother and daughter who end the story plump and obviously happy and well-fed, after their hilarious adventure.

"All Fur" adapted by Gina Biggs, illustrated by Elle Skinner. A king, inconsolable after the death of his wife, decides to take his daughter as his wife instead, as she is the only one as beautiful as his deceased wife. She tries to get out of it by demanding beautiful dresses and then a cloak made of pieces of fur from every animal, but eventually flees. Working as a scullery maid, she escapes to the royal ball in her dresses for a brief time and catches the eye of the prince. He eventually figures out her identity and they are married and live happily every after. Skinner's art adds a rich dimension to the story, following the king's mental and physical deterioration and the princess' determined flight and return to society. Her dresses glow softly in the muted colors and lines of the artwork and the story features a prince with darker skin and hair.

The story ends with a gallery of fairy tales characters from Cinderella to Little One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes.

The second volume, which I was eagerly looking forward to, although I'd seen all the stories online already, did not disappoint.

It opens with one of my favorite stories that I read as a child, "Brother and Sister" adapted by Gina Biggs and illustrated by Elle Skinner. It's a variation on Hansel and Gretel sort of - a brother and sister escape from an evil stepmother and her nasty daughter (she has a missing eye with gruesome blood trickling from under her eyepatch) but the brother is transformed into a white deer by the stepmother's evil magic. The deer-brother is hunted by the king and his party who then track down the sister. The king, who is absolutely adorable, marries the daughter - but the evil stepmother sneaks in and kills her after the birth of her first child. Her ghost returns and the king frees her from the spell and the stepmother and her daughter are horribly killed - which frees the brother from the spell. This has brighter colors than in Skinner's other artwork, like a vividly green forest and the ominous bloody red of the stepsister's eyepatch. The brother and sister have light brown skin and the king looks like an adorable boy scout with his hunting dress and neat spectacles.

"Iron Hans" adapted by Gina Biggs and illustrated by Louisa Roy veers a little away from the original story, although not as much as Trina Schart Hyman's version (which I also love). A young boy disobeys his father and frees a wild man, who then takes him into the woods to avoid his father's anger. The boy is supposed to guard a magical spring but fails in his duty. However, Iron Hans does not forsake him but sponsors him to go out into the world, where he works as a gardener, falls in love with the princess, and after he saves the kingdom and wins her heart he and Iron Hans are both restored. Roy's slick, glistening art is the perfect medium to add a mischievous, sly dimension to the characters. Iron Hans is wickedly humorous, both in his enchanted and real forms, and the interactions between the princess and gardener's boy become funnier and more tender than in the original story, where one wonders why the prince would marry such a haughty and unpleasant princess.

"Doctor Know-it-All" adapted and illustrated by Gina Biggs is done in a very different style than her other work. It's one of the short tales and features a man who wants to be a doctor and ends up wealthy through a series of lucky coincidences and clever wordplay. The art is grainy and colored in sepia and red tones, making it look like an old silent film or newspaper cartoon strip.

"The Three Lazy Ones" adapted and illustrated by Elle Skinner is another short, quirky tale. A king offers his kingdom to whichever of his sons is the laziest and it is won by the youngest son. The ironic twist at the end shows the proclamation being read to an exasperated populace, laboring in the fields.

"The Worn Out Dancing Shoes" adapted and illustrated by Louisa Roy is a version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I really didn't care for this one - Roy's artwork is fine and the tale told in all its quirky, odd glory, but it ends on an odd note with the nasty oldest princess married - and ignored - by the soldier.

However, this is followed by my absolute favorite story, "Snow White and Rose Red" adapted and illustrated by Gina Biggs. If you're not familiar with the story, two girls live with their mother, deep in the forest. Snow White is gentle and kind and blond, Rose Red is energetic and lively and has red hair (in the original story it's black) but they are sisters and love each other dearly. When a bear comes to their house for shelter in the winter, he becomes their dearest friend and they are sorry to see him return to the forest come spring. While he is gone, they three times save a nasty little dwarf until finally the dwarf is attacked and killed by a bear...who turns out to be an enchanted prince. Snow White marries him and Rose Red his brother and they will never be parted. I just love everything about this story. The warmth and love of the small family unit, the inseparable sisters, the romantic, happily-ever-after ending. Biggs' colorful, romantic art makes it even better, adding a meeting with Rose Red and her prince and confidences from Snow White to her bear as they grow closer until the enchantment is broken.

The book ends with an odd, tragic little story "Death of the Little Hen" adapted and illustrated by Elle Skinner. A rooster's beloved hen is choked to death and, on the way to her funeral, he gathers animals. They try to cross a stream and eventually fall in and drown, all except the rooster who stays with his hen's grave until only his skeleton is left. The glowing, almost neon art gives a surreal feel to what is definitely a surreal story.

Gorgeous. So, what does this mean for a library? Who is the audience? Well, although fairy tales are generally considered for children, the gruesome ends of the villains and the short, quirky stories that often deal with death don't give this a children's book feel to me. On the other hand, while many adults enjoy fairy tales, it's hard to picture them checking this out in my library at least. I'd say this is most likely to find an audience among teens who will appreciate the art and stories.

However, getting your hands on it is liable to be an issue. It is available only directly from the authors, via Strawberry Comics. If you purchase both volumes together, it's $39. They are hardbound and feel like really strong, excellent bindings, but I am generally reluctant to purchase expensive graphic novels because of how easily the pages seem to disintegrate, even in what looks like a strong volume. It's also very difficult for me to purchase outside my vendor and I have to have a strong justification for doing so. There's not a lot of interest in fairy tales among my teens right now, although a few years ago they were really into them.

Verdict: Although I happily expended money to purchase these for myself and a friend, I can't justify the purchase for the library at this time. However, if you have fairy tale fans and a more flexible budget and purchasing system, I heartily recommend this. And don't forget to purchase a set for yourself and support the authors in creating more beautiful comics with strong female characters and a diverse cast!

Vol. 1
ISBN: 9780985619503; Published 2012 by Strawberry Comics
Vol. 2
ISBN: 9780985619565; Published 2014 by Strawberry Comics
Purchased for my personal library

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