Freak series, By Jim Eldridge Illustrated, by Stephen Player Through the Lightning Gate, 0 09 933341 4. Death and the Lizard Man, 0 09 937181 2, Red Fox Pounds 4.99 each. Jim Eldridge, teacher, novelist and creator of the King Street Junior radio series, sets out in his latest venture to appeal to "the 80 per cent majority of children who do not equate reading a book with pleasure".
According to the teacher's notes, he wants "a series that used the popularity and accessibility of the comic book genre combined with the fast action plots of computer games." The trick is to fuse the "visual strengths of the graphic novel with text." Eldridge also believes we need to provide "an antidote to the might is right school of violence".
The hero of his brave new world is Freak - Freddy A Kennedy - a survivor on the mean streets of the 90s, until a ferocious brawl swirls him into a parallel world, inhabited by mutant creatures with human bodies and animal heads.
Freak I and Freak II chronicle a succession of fights, tortures, escapes and rescues, balanced only by the peaceful resourcefulness of Freak and his new-found allies, Eon the lion-woman and Krill the lizard-man. All three are loners committed to giving compassion a chance. Through every Ulp, Blam, Vrrrrooooom and Kibam, Freak manages a nice series of ironic one-liners.
Eldridge's major innovation, however, is in form. The books are A4 size, 50-odd pages, mostly in comic book format, but punctuated by half-pages, then full-pages, of prose text. The idea is that readers will be so caught up in the story that they'll read through the sections of prose which carry the narrative along until the next section of visuals-and-words takes over. But if readers have got into the register of comic-book reading, will they really switch gear into print mode? And will there be a transition from such books to print novels? Only if readers have become convinced of the value of powerful stories.
When you set Freak alongside, say, The Exploits of Spiderman, the doubts set in. Freak's rather crude black and white art-work, with little variation in tone, cannot compete. Spiderman is in blazing colour; but more importantly, the Spiderman artists and writers use the form quite differently. Pictures and words interplay, they extend each other - you must read the pictures as well as the words. Sometimes, the pictures counterpoint rather than complement.
Stephen Player's pictures for Freak are too often merely talking heads. Spiderman plays with form, bursting out of the frame; many more pages are designed uniquely as entities and all kinds of "camera angles" are ingeniously exploited.
Spiderman can also rely on a vast amount of self-referenced jokes and information. Supporting actors keep cropping up, behaving with all the caricatured predictability of Dickens's minor characters. As in The Beano and The Dandy, there's the sense of a club, a family even, of readers sharing a familiar alternative world.
Of course, the bleak fact from Eldridge's perspective is that superheroes such as Spidey can be as violent as they like in their fight against crime, and the occasional superheroine or girlfriend can be as curvaceous as the artist fancies. Freak runs into some trouble in these areas. There is plenty of violence. In fact, it's far more real than the fantastical conflicts in Spiderman. More Lansdowne Road than Gotham City; and it's the bad guys who make the impact. Then there's the question of Lion-woman's sexual appeal, which is disturbingly bizarre.
Given the choice, many students will undoubtedly prefer Freak to conventional novels. It is less certain that the stories are sufficiently compelling to lead them to ask for more, whether in printed or graphic format. As yet, the art-work, the interplay of words and the variety of incident within the narratives remain areas in need of development.