Every picture tells a story

4th July 1997 at 01:00
A set of graphic novels aims to encourage the reading habit, writes Michael Thorn

THE LISTENER. By Elizabeth Laird. MATTHEW'S GOALS. By Michael Hardcastle. CAPTAIN HAWK AND THE STONE OF DESTINY. By Jim Eldridge.

BIKER. By Anthony Masters. ROLLER MADONNAS. By Bernard Ashley. OTHERWORLD. By Jeremy Strong. AC Black Graffix Pounds 6.99 each

Following the success of Chillers, a highly successful and popular series of illustrated thrillers for younger readers, AC Black has launched a series of graphic books aimed at reluctant readers aged nine to 12.

The new series, targeted at boys, is annoyingly titled Graffix. The series title is objectionable not because mis-spelling sets a bad example - I can remember how cross I once was with a reception teacher's high-and-mighty objection to some year 6 posters bearing the word "skool" - but because it is so obviously a marketing ploy. Boys, we are to suppose, will find that cool.

Several well-known authors have been commissioned to produce the first half-dozen books, each with a different illustrator. Apart from length, there appears to have been little in the way of a brief. Themes range through science fiction, sport and soap opera to a sort of senior Chillers atmosphere in The Listener, by Elizabeth Laird.

This story, about a boy who rescues his grandmother with the aid of a deaf girl, is grippingly told, and has a comic-strip format with plenty of speech bubbles and text used as captions for the drawings. In other words, it is genuinely "graphic", and the illustrator, Pauline Hazelwood, is as responsible as the author for building up the tension.

The same is true of Michael Hardcastle and Bob Moulder's Matthew's Goals, which opens with the main character being grounded for failing to shut the freezer properly. Most of the books have young teenagers as their main characters. The exception is Jim Eldridge's Captain Hawk and the Stone of Destiny, a sci-fi graphic tale that refuses to take itself seriously and benefits as a result.

The repartee between Hawk and his sidekick, Xan-X, a robot with a mind like Mr Spock, is witty in a way that will appeal to the target audience. The ingenuity of the main situation, in which Hawk and Xan-X are fitted with collars timed to blow their heads off in 48 hours, is immediately engaging, and the illustrator, Janek Matysiak, favours a full-page look which has the appropriate impact.

Anthony Masters, a prolific writer who already aims a good deal of his work at reluctant readers, has opted for a moral subtext in Biker, a Jacob-and-Esau story about a teenage moto-cross rider jealous because his rugby-playing brother gets all his father's attention.

Bernard Ashley's Roller Madonnas is an aberration from such a distinguished writer. Like Masters' title, this has a family-relationship subtext, but the main storyline (about two roller-blading girls chasing the same boy) is mundane to the point of futility. The speech bubbles seem extraneous add-ons to the main text. You almost hope Ashley wasn't responsible for the opening reference to "pilks" (shorthand, one must assume, for "pillocks") and the remarkable exchange, repeated twice (for hidden meaning perhaps) in which one girl asks the other: "Do pigeons poo?" Thrown in to appeal to boys' toilet humour, no doubt.

Mixed marks, then, for the opening titles in a series that will certainly appeal. Purchase selectively, and don't rely on an author's previous reputation.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm County Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex

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