Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Last Unicorn: The Graphic Novel

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn: the Graphic Novel


Title: The Last Unicorn
Original Story by: Peter S. Beagle
Adaptation by: Peter B. Gillis
Art by: Renae De Liz
Publication Info: IDW, 2013
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Book Depository
Note: You may also be able to buy the book in segments for a cheaper price, as it was originally published as a serial comic.
What Goodreads has to say:
Whimsical. Lyrical. Poignant. Adapted for the first time from the acclaimed and beloved novel by Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn is a tale for any age about the wonders of magic, the power of love, and the tragedy of loss. The unicorn, alone in her enchanted wood, discovers that she may be the last of her kind. Reluctant at first, she sets out on a journey to find her fellow unicorns, even if it means facing the terrifying anger of the Red Bull and malignant evil of the king who wields his power. Adapted by Peter B. Gillis and lushly illustrated by Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon.

What I have to say:
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle, is one of my favorite books. I read it for the first time a couple of years ago and was absolutely blown away. I couldn't believe that it had taken me so long to discover such a wonderful, beautiful book, especially as I have loved unicorns from my childhood. I have since reread it and it has become one of my favorite books. Additionally, I've become more interested in and appreciative of graphic novels lately. It started when I discovered an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear by Gareth Hinds (my favorite graphic novelist). I went on to explore other works by him, which include graphic novels of Beowulf and The Odyssey. I also discovered the Tintin books by Herge, and Axe Cop (which you should check out). So when, browsing a bookstore in Victoria, B.C., I came across The Last Unicorn in graphic novel form, I was very excited. It was, however, rather expensive, so I put it on my wish list and waited. Finally, this Christmas, my sister bought it for me and I got to read it at last.

It was wondrous. The story in comic book form retained all the wonder, beauty and poignancy of the original novel. And it was a joy to see the novel's characters, places, and events brought to life in such vivid, beautiful illustrations. All in all, it was a very satisfying reading experience. Now on to the specifics.

I was very pleased and satisfied by the visual renderings of the characters, especially Schmendrick the magician. In the book he is described as having a baby face, and it's difficult to tell how old he is. I thought the artist captured this perfectly. Schmendrick's face in the graphic novel looks very smooth and youthful. And the artist captures perfectly all of the emotions that flit across his face, whether that's excitement, fear, wonder, etc. We see him change throughout the story, not only in his actions and experiences, but visually on his face and in the way that face changes towards the end of the graphic novel. At the end of the story he looks older, wiser, and more majestic.

Most of the other characters were also done well; they matched the descriptions in the original book and the visuals that I had in my head as I was reading the book. Lir and Amalthea were particularly good, though Amalthea did seem to be wearing a little too much mascara at times. Haggard was appropriately creepy, and Mommy Fortuna was rather terrifying. There were a couple of (minor) exceptions. Rukh looked too much like an ogre for my taste, but he's a fairly minor character and not my favorite (obviously), so it was fine. A more important exception was Molly Grue, who, though beautiful, did not in my opinion match what we hear about her in the book. Captain Cully remarks at one point that she has "let herself go to seed," and Molly herself seems to acknowledge that she is past her prime when she cries to the Unicorn, "How dare you come to me now, when I am this!" Based on these remarks, I got the impression that Molly was, not necessarily ugly, but not a thin young beauty, either. In the graphic novel, she is a thin young beauty. It's true that she probably looks a little older than Amalthea, and she isn't stunningly beautiful, but she has definitely not "gone to seed," yet. But really, I only point this out because I have very few actual criticisms to make of this adaptation, so I feel like I have to point them out when I do have them. I wasn't seriously bothered by the visual rendering of Molly's character, and I did think she was beautifully drawn. At any rate, she was still a very strong and compelling character; my sister who has never read the original novel read this adaptation and told me that Molly was her favorite character, so that's proof.

I was very impressed with the way that the visuals worked alongside the text to help the story unfold effectively. For example, at the very beginning, while the text is describing the setting and the Unicorn, the visuals show different shots of the wood, and in each shot we see only a part of the Unicorn, as if she is disappearing just as we catch a glimpse of her. Thus, in the first picture, we see only her tail disappearing behind a hill, next we see her back showing through the roots of a tree, and then her eye reflected in a pool. She remains elusive, so that we only see her shadow, her hoof, or her back, until the two hunters finish their dialogue and leave the forest. Once they are gone, the Unicorn emerges.

Throughout the graphic novel, it was clear that the artists had put some serious thought into the organization and arrangement of shots. It felt very cinematic at times, as if the artists were not just illustrators, but directors and cameramen as well. And it was very effective. For example, one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the novel was Molly's first encounter with the Unicorn. We see her emerge from the trees as Schmendrick is talking to the Unicorn, and then the next shot zooms in to show just her face as she sees the Unicorn. Then we move out to show both of them - the Unicorn with her back to us and Molly facing forward so that we can see her emotions but not the Unicorn's. Next we zoom in again to show Molly's torso and face as she begins to cry and as she swears at the Unicorn. Then we see both of their profiles facing each other - the Unicorn's calm and quiet, and Molly's raging with tears streaming wildly from her eyes. Finally we go to a shot of her kneeling on the ground, hand to her chest and hair covering her eyes, as if she has just fallen to her knees in defeat. And it ends in a beautiful illustration of her caressing the Unicorn with her eyes closed in the midst of a fiery autumn morning. Throughout the book, sequences like this one demonstrate the fine artistry and storytelling of the novel's adaptors and artists.

This is somewhat related to storytelling, but the illustrations were so beautiful that I felt they deserved their own section. The art was very well done, unlike some graphic novels which have a good story but rather disappointing illustrations. The art in this book was obviously done by skilled artists who understand facial expression, lighting, and composition. For a sample, look at this illustration, which covers two pages near the beginning of the novel (I made it super huge so you can really enjoy it):

I love the shading and the defining lines on the wizard's face and hair in the upper left corner. Do you see the way the unicorn's horn glows in the picture below the wizard: just faint enough to not be a distraction, but just bright enough to emit a noticeable glow? And do you see how the unicorn-turned-human resembles the unicorn itself in the first two pictures? But I think my favorite part of this piece is the picture of the unicorn-man and the girl on the far right. Their hair is so cool! And the girl's face looks so soft, almost like real skin but more beautiful and smooth. Of course, the above image is just a reproduction; these pages are much brighter and more luminous in the actual print copy. Also, the above image may be slightly out of focus, but I promise that the lines in the real book are clear and sharp.

Another aspect of the visuals (which actually might fall under storytelling), is the appropriate atmosphere for each moment of the story. Background colors, darkness or light, and borders add to each scene a distinct mood which corresponds to what is happening in that moment of the story. Hence, bright orange, red, and yellow dominate certain moments of panic or terror, such as when the Red Bull appears or when he charges Lir. Alternately, grays and subtle purples permeate scenes of suspense or impending danger, such as the moment before the Harpy breaks loose, or the sequence in the passage beneath Haggard's castle. The final moments of the book - poignant and bittersweet, are set against a sky of baby blue, offset by lush green grass and tinges of white: perhaps a subtle way of incorporating a reminder of the Unicorn into the scene. White petals falling on a serene blue pond end the novel in the same way that it began - with an orange dahlia coming to rest amid serene ripples on a sky blue lake.
And then there is a rabbit writing on a scroll (presumably working on a book in which men are fairytales).

Favorite Moments:
There were a few pages that were so cool, I wanted to devote a few words to them specifically. What follows are some of my very favorite moments in the graphic novel.


In first place is the moment when Molly hears Schmendrick tell her to open her eyes; she obeys - and sees all of the unicorns rushing out from the sea and streaming around her. It's a wonderful, eucatastrophic moment in the original book as it is, but the way that the artists rendered it - with Molly looking up in amazement, her hair billowing out in the wind, as white unicorns tinged with subtle greens and pinks rush out all around her, and Schmendrick standing up straight with his hand outstretched and his hat in the act of flying off - lent to the scene even greater emotional impact and a feeling of deep wonder and Joy.

Another memorable moment was that when Schmendrick summons up the vision of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and all the Merry Men. The figures were so colorful and bright as they appeared suddenly, without any warning, in the midst of the blue-gray forest, and they seem to be in the act of descending through the air, with a white glow around their feet. Additionally, all of the figures, and especially Robin and Marian, look particularly noble. Robin, his face calmly dignified, looks over at Marian, who wears a white and pink wedding dress with touches of purple, and looks down with a noble demureness. And her yellow hair falls down in curls around her face.

Also among my favorite moments is the two page display already shown above, which illustrates the story of Nikos and the unicorn he turned into a man. I love the wild, almost savage look of the unicorn-turned-man; he is almost sublime. And, of course, as already noted, I love the soft beauty of the girl's face and hair on the far right.

Lastly, the illustration of the hunter's memory about his great-grandmother and her unicorn was very lovely and touching in the way it was rendered and organized. And this is true in general for much of the book. It was superbly laid out.

Again, I have very few substantial criticisms to make of this book, so I want to stress that I only point the following things out in order to be fair and take all considerations into account. The following criticisms are not so much things I hated or even things I disliked as much as just things that I missed a little or noted in passing as minor failings.

I've already noted how Molly's appearance wasn't exactly in accordance with what we hear about her in the book - and that is probably my biggest criticism, along with the fact that Rukh looked like an ogre. Probably my next criticism would be that certain moments of the original novel were missing, and, well, I missed them. For example, possibly the most hilarious part of the novel is when Jack Jingly stumbles over the password and finally gets it all out, only to hear his fellow outlaw say that they changed the password while he was away:

“We changed the password while you were gone, Jack,” came the voice of the sentry. “It was too hard to remember.”

“Ah, you changed the password, did ye?” Jack Jingly dabbed at his bleeding ear with a fold of Schmendrick’s cloak. “And how was I to know that, ye brainless, tripeless, liverless get?”

“Don’t get mad, Jack,” the sentry answered soothingly. “You see, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t know the new password, because it’s so simple. You just call like a giraffe. The captain thought of it himself.”

“Call like a giraffe.” The giant swore till even the horses fidgeted with embarrassment. “Ye ninny, a giraffe makes no sound at all. The captain might as well have us call like a fish or a butterfly.”

“I know. That way, nobody can forget the password, even you. Isn’t the captain clever?”

“There’s no limit to the man,” Jack Jingly said wonderingly. “But see here, what’s to keep a ranger or one of the king’s men from calling like a giraffe when ye hail him?”

“Aha,” the sentry chuckled. “That’s where the cleverness of it is. You have to give the call three times. Two long and one short.”
This part of the book is hilarious. And in the graphic novel, they ended it after the sentry tells Jack that they changed the password because it was too hard too remember. So, understandably, I was just a little disappointed that they left this part out of the adaptation.

Similarly, Haggard's men make no appearance in the graphic novel, which was also a little disappointing, as I really like them in the book and think they are somewhat important. And we didn't see Lir speak to the people of Hagsgate after he becomes king. But of course, I understand that, in an adaptation, some things have to get cut, and as I said, these absences didn't really interrupt my enjoyment of the story. Also, the adaptors may have been trying to keep the characters at a minimum so things didn't get too confusing.

All in all, I highly recommend this adaptation to any and all fans of the original novel. With a fond affection for the (slightly bizarre) cartoon adaptation, I can state that this graphic novel is the most satisfying and beautiful retelling of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn currently in existence. I do recommend reading the original novel first, only because I love it deeply and would not want anyone's enjoyment of it to be ruined by knowing in advance everything that's going to happen. But, if you haven't read the original and want to try this adaptation, I think you'll find that it is a wonderful story in its own right.


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