GC4K Book Club: Calamity Jack
Long-time Good Comics for Kids readers (and anyone who has come within spitting distance of me, for that matter) know how much I love Rapunzel’s Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale. Its combination of fairytale retelling, kick-ass heroine, and Wild West setting worked perfectly for me and has become a favorite in my library with both boys and girls. So when I heard about the sequel, Calamity Jack, I couldn’t wait to read it. Would a story about Rapunzel’s sidekick Jack set in a steampunked big city be as satisfying a read? I asked my fellow Good Comics for Kid bloggers to find out along with me.
Shannon and Dean Hale & Nathan Hale
Bloomsbury, January 2010, ISBN 978-0-545-13206-0
144 pages, $19.99
Many thanks to Bloomsbury for providing enough review copies to go around.
Having never pictured Jack (of Beanstalk fame) living in a big city, I wasn’t sure I was going to like the setting of this new story. Did you read the first book? If so, did the change from a Wild West setting to an urban/steampunk setting work for you? Or did you even notice?
Lori Henderson: I wasn’t able to read the first book, but I found the setting of Jack in the big city very easy to get into. I think the steampunk setting has been used so often in a wild west setting that it just seemed natural. The urban setting had just enough of a western town feel that it seemed like a natural extension. I actually think with Jack’s knack for trouble, the urban setting for his beginnings suited him perfectly.
Robin Brenner: I didn’t have any reservations about the setting. I agree that I’d never really thought of Jack as being in a big city, but I trusted the writers (and artist) to make the relocation work. I’d already enjoyed the world created in Rapunzel’s Revenge tremendously, so I was happy to see more of that landscape. I particularly like that Jack is more urban—it’s almost more Dickensian. I’ve always had a soft spot for grifters and heist tales, and as most of those stories take place in a more intense urban landscape, I was happy to be in the big city. The steampunk aspects also made sense to me, given the integration of Old West technology was already going strong in Rapunzel’s Revenge, so it felt like a natural progression. Also, I’ve been keen on all things steampunk (or dieselpunk) lately, so I’m happy to see it showing up in all forms of stories.
I was also happy because I have always been happy that Jack is, well, not white, and I was curious to see what the city he came from looked like. The diversity of people and species (I loved the pixies! I guess they’re another species?) was fun to see.
Esther Keller: I did read Rapunzel’s Revenge, but it’s been a while, so many of the details are already hazy in my mind. That’s just my reality when I read. But I do remember loving Rapunzel and was really thrilled to know that I could read Jack’s story.
I didn’t think twice about the setting of the story. Of course I know the original tale—and Jack and the Beanstalk never made me conjure an image of a boy in the city—but Rapunzel was never in the wild west either! So I just went with the flow.
The setting worked, because the art just made it come alive. And the characters really jump off the page. I think the reader will become so invested in Jack and Rapunzel and the new characters here, that some people really won’t think twice about the setting.
Kate Dacey: I agree with what everyone else has said: the steampunk elements are
handled with humor and subtlety. Though they certainly are an important element of the story, they never become the story. No matter what fancy tools Jack and Rapunzel have at their disposal, it’s their quick wits, teamwork, and physical strength that ultimately help them get out of a jam. Moreover, the technology doesn’t seem incongruous with the Victorian setting; if anything, it seems a little dangerous and unreliable, just like the first generation of steamcars and trains.
Eva: How about the adventure itself? After reading Rapunzel’s Revenge, I was surprised by Jack’s hesitancy and lack of confidence. (Although, I suppose knowing the traditional story of Jack and the Beanstalk, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Jack has mother issues.) How did you like Jack as a character? Is he someone you’d want to go have coffee with?
Kate: I found it refreshing to see a male hero who was self-doubting, especially since that particular trait is one usually reserved for female leads. If anything, I think the decision to make Jack a little more vulnerable and Rapunzel a little stronger allows young readers to identify with either character, without being constrained by the character’s gender.
Esther: I was not at all put off or surprised by Jack’s lack of confidence, mostly because it fit so well into the story. Jack’s confidence falters in 2 situations. First with Rapunzel, which the story backs it up by having the other guy sweep Rapunzel under his spell. Also, while I assumed they were a couple at the end of Rapunzel’s Revenge, there was no actual declaration of love. So it makes sense that Jack would wonder if his love was returned. Rapunzel never showed it.
The other instance where Jack’s confidence falters is with his mother. And again, I just thought the story set it up well. While I wouldn’t have imagined Jack being unsure of himself from Rapunzel’s Revenge alone, it works well in this story.
And that’s one of the strengths of Calamity Jack. It works well on its own. Not just as a sequel or companion.
Kate: To piggyback off of Esther’s comments, I found Jack an endearing character. He’s strong and resourceful, but he’s completely inept at verbalizing his feelings; his interior monologues were a hoot, as he struggles to tell Rapunzel what he likes best about her. (I love the fact that he admires her strength and gumption above all else; it’s a great, girl-positive message.) There’s a similar dynamic at work with Jack’s mother, too: he wants to do right by her, but hits on schemes that compromise his dignity (and, in some cases, his integrity).
Lori: I found Jack’s lack of confidence natural for the character as portrayed in the book. Jack was always striving to please his mother, and fear of failing at that seems normal. The same with his lack of confidence with Rapunzel. He spends a lot of the book trying to impress her, but because she seems more “one of the guys” than a “normal” girl, he isn’t sure how to proceed. I liked that even though they were on his home turf, it was Rapunzel that was the more confident and clear headed. I did like Jack. He’s very much the rogue with a heart of gold. He means well even if his methods aren’t 100% on the up and up. Those kinds of characters can be endearing.
Robin: I want to chime in and say how much I agree with you, Kate and Esther, about the charm of Jack’s internal monologues. They are character-defining in only a few words, and it shows off the fact that the writers know how to write dialog and thoughts in a way that works in comics. I’ve read far too many authors who, coming from the world of prose, seem uncertain in how much or how little to include prose-wise in their graphic novels. Shannon and Dean Hale really understand the medium, knowing just how much to say and just how much to show, leaving it in the artist’s capable hands.
One thing I’ve always appreciated about Shannon Hale’s work is the humor, affection, and subtlety that she works into her romance elements, and I sincerely appreciate the tension and sweetness here between Jack and Rapunzel. After Rapunzel’s Revenge, many might assume that their relationship was “happily ever after,” and I’m glad that Calamity Jack shows that it’s never quite that easy.
Kate: Now I have a question for the librarians: who is the right audience for this book? I know my six-year-old cousins would like it (they adored Rapunzel’s Revenge), but they certainly couldn’t read Calamity Jack on their own just yet. Is this a book for older grade schoolers? Would tweens and teens enjoy it, or does it seem too young for them?
Esther: This is definitely a great middle school read. I recently booktalked Rapunzel’s Revenge and the kids were clamoring to read Calamity Jack. They’re old enough to get most of the jokes and innuendoes and young enough to appreciate it.
Robin: I do think of it as middle school, though I’ve had few older teens who are fond of fairy tales pick it up. In my public library, we have it in both Children’s and Teen, and I think that works great—indicating that it’s perfectly appealing to older kids but is also fun for teens.
I was curious about those who’ve seen these two books’ appeals to their patrons. Does Calamity Jack skew more toward guy readers? Are girls picking it up because of Rapunzel’s Revenge? Are guys (or really any new readers) who didn’t read the first volume going back to find it after sharing Jack’s adventure?
Eva: I used Rapunzel’s Revenge as a book club book with my middle schoolers and the guys were as equally enthusiastic about the book as the girls were. So word of mouth about Rapunzel’s Revenge hit the circuit here in Alameda pretty early and circulation of both titles has been evenly split between all kinds of readers. Since I have the books down here in the Boys’ & Girls’ Department, I don’t see a lot of teen readers picking it up, but I do see quite a few upper elementary school age kids reading them.
We’re just about ready to wrap up this month’s book club, but I wanted to ask one more question that will circle us back around to the beginning of our discussion.
For those of you who read the first book, how does Calamity Jack compare to Rapunzel’s Revenge? If you haven’t read Rapunzel’s Revenge, does Calamity Jack stand alone well enough for you? Do you feel you’ve missed anything by not having the back story?
I ask this because I felt a little bit let down by Calamity Jack. Wait! Let me explain: I loved Rapunzel’s Revenge so much that I basked in the Great Book Glow™ for days afterward, telling people about it and forcing copies into their hands. I was an evangelist for the book and felt personally slighted when people turned down my offer to read it aloud to them while acting out the panels as my staff did interpretive dance behind me.
So there is no way Calamity Jack was going to be able to achieve those heights. Few books could. And Calamity Jack was darn good. Darn good. But I didn’t feel the same connection to Jack that I felt with Rapunzel and I didn’t care as much about his journey. (Is it a girl thing? I don’t know.) Quick, somebody tell me how crazy I am.
Esther: I think that when you love the first book in a series so much or when there’s a lot of hype about a book, it’s almost always a let down. I did love Rapunzel’s Revenge, but I wasn’t worked up over the title and so I was just looking forward to more good-humored fun and I got just that.
Kate: As someone who didn’t read Rapunzel’s Revenge before I picked up Calamity Jack, I thought the Hales did a great job of recapping the first book without wasting too much time explaining how Rapunzel and Jack know each other. The timing of the recap was perfect, too, allowing the authors to re-tell “Jack and the Beanstalk” before launching into what happened “ever after.”
Lori: I thought Calamity Jack stood just fine on its own. There was just enough backstory told that I got the gist of what happened without feeling I HAD to track down Rapunzel’s Revenge. Would I have gotten more out of it if I had read the first book? Probably, but I don’t think Calamity Jack suffers for lack of it.
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About Eva Volin
Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.
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