March of the robots
VERDI. By Janell Cannon. David BennettRagged Bears Pounds 9.99
As Children's Book Week starts on Monday, Philip Pullman heads a page of reviews with a look at Ted Dewan's gleeful new work
Two hundred years after Goethe, a century after Paul Dukas, and 57 years after Walt Disney, Ted Dewan comes up with his version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Instead of magic, this apprentice is powered by electronics - not that it matters: to most of us, electronics are magic anyway.
The Apprentice here is a quirky little robot, who follows his creator's blueprints to make a duplicate of himself, which then makes another - and so on.
The page on which the doubling takes place is a particular delight: against a background of graph paper, one, two, four, eight, 16 robots shake hands, prod each other, stand on their heads, stick their fingers in their ears, all of them faceless yet full of character. One of them has three legs, just to be different. Above them a line of music shows the same phenomenon in sound: a semibreve, two minims, four crotchets. . .
The music refers us to an accompanying cassette, on which Dewan reads the story and plays his own arrangement (electronic, natch) of the Dukas score, together with the "Danse Macabre" by Saint-Sa ns and a composition of his own called "March of the Robots". He does it infuriatingly well. Electronic music can easily sound like the whine and buzz of a zombie-space-hornet, but here the sine waves are manipulated with taste and imagination as well as skill.
The delight of the book lies in Dewan's sinewy, vigorous line, and in the sheer pictorial zest which matches the Sorcerer himself for inventiveness. There's a painterliness about these pages which was present in Dewan's Three Billy-Goats Gruff, but here it's even richer. The colours are warm and subtle, the glow of lamp on workbench inviting us to gaze at the myriad tools; and as with the exemplar of all workshop drawings, that of Herge's Professor Calculus in Red Rackham's Treasure, we could almost pick them up and use them, flip that switch, twirl that handle, press that lever, and feel the heft of every piece in our hands.
Similarly, the outside of the Sorcercer's house is beautifully rendered: a ramshackle wooden building seen in the bedraggled glow of a winter sunset, with staircases and galleries projecting in all directions but all fitting together perfectly behind its broken fence amid the abandoned cars and piles of dirty snow. You could build it, and it would look crazy, but it would stand up.
There's a glee in these pages that is infectious, an energy visible in the Sorcerer's very elbows: the busiest elbows since the work of Will Eisner.
Janell Cannon's Verdi, a bestseller in the United States, is not about music, but about a python. Born a natty yellow with black stripes, Verdi doesn't want to be green like his dozy elders and droop about in the trees all day long, but green is what he's destined to be.
Cannon's draughtsmanship is admirable, and the pictures are strongly designed, immaculately textured (in Liquitex acrylics and Prismacolor pencils on Bristol board: the publishers include this information in a note at the back, and good for them) and evocative of a jungle atmosphere, but the story is very slight, not to say misconceived.
Part of her purpose seems to be to bring about a deeper understanding of nature, or, as we now call it, the environment: hence the notes at the end. But I'm doubtful whether that can be achieved by anthropomorphising her snake in a cute style that recalls the excesses of the Disney nature films of the 1950s, brought up to date by the addition of a high-minded anti-speciesism.
Even the notes themselves, which begin factually enough, soon dither into herpetological correctness. She tells us that "these sensitive creatures are an important part of our ecosystem", which is true, but also that "these often-shy reptiles will appreciate your respect", which is nonsense. Snakes know nothing of respect, or appreciation either. Janell Cannon the artist should find a more sceptical collaborator than Janell Cannon the writer.