Jim Henson's The Storyteller is one of the greatest shows ever put on television. Everything about it was just perfect — a culmination of Henson's vision of dark fantasy as seen in movies like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, combined with the gathered folklore of the ages seen through the eye of Oscar-winning writer/director Anthony Minghella, interpreted through the genius of Oscar-winning actor John Hurt who was born to play the titular role. But like many works of vision and wonder, it was never really appreciated and its short run of episodes will always put it at the top of my "TV Shows Cancelled Too Soon" list.
The original series of The Storyteller ran on HBO and had nine episodes. Every one of those episodes is a well-crafted gem that stands up to scores of repeat viewings (as I know, having almost worn out my DVD with usage). A follow-up series, The Storyteller: Greek Myths, didn't quite have the same charm. John Hurt was replaced by Michael Gambon who is an excellent actor but just didn't have the same magic as Hurt. (It killed me to see Hurt playing the wand seller Olivander in the Harry Potter flicks. His voice and tone were so close to his Storyteller character that I wished he would plop down by the fire and tell me a story instead of just hawking wands.)
I have always wished that more episodes of The Storyteller would be produced. But now both Jim Henson and Anthony Minghella are dead. At the very least, more than a decade after the last episode aired, Archaia Entertainment gives us The Storyteller in comic form so that at least a spark of the magic can live again for awhile.
There are eight stories all together in The Storyteller Volume One. Some of them are good. Some of them are so-so. None of them really manage to capture the wonder of the TV show, but that is to be expected. Beautifully crafted puppets moving on screen have a wonder that simply cannot be replicated by drawings, and John Hurt's voice never really comes through in the dialogue. Some try more than others, and those are the best of the lot.
The real problem I had with this book is that the final product ends up being a collection of illustrated folktales rather than a recreation of The Storyteller. Anyone who watched the show knows that the Storyteller and his Dog did more than just introduce the stories. They were not fantasy versions of the Horror Hosts from old EC Comics. They got involved and interacted with the stories. That element is sadly missing here.
Old Nick and the Peddler — From a Scandinavian Folktale
Adapted by Roger Langridge. Colors by Jordie Bellaire
This was the least successful of the collection. Roger Langridge has some Henson-cred because of his work on the Muppet Show Comic Book, but that is what ultimately fails the book. The characters look too much like Muppets, and there is no attempt to capture the tone of The Storyteller. The folktale, of a peddler who makes a bargain with the Devil only to be rescued by Kate Grey — Devil Smasher, was decent enough but was too comedic and modernized.
The Milkmaid and her Pail — From an Aesop's Fable
Adapted by Colleen Coover
I am familiar with this fable, and Colleen Coover does a smashing job with the adaptation. Her simple-yet-expressive arts style is perfect for the story of a daydreaming milkmaid. And if this were a collection of illustrated Aesop's Fables, then I would give this story full marks. But it isn't. Aside from four panels in the beginning and three at the end, there wasn't even an attempt to make this look like The Storyteller.
An Agreement Between Friends — From a Romanian Folktale
Adapted by Chris Eliopoulos. Color and art by Mike Maihack
This is the first entry that actually feels like The Storyteller. In an interesting twist, the Dog tells the Storyteller a tale as to why cats are liars who can't be trusted. I liked how the Dog kept adding comments into the story, as both characters were more than just "Introducers" in the TV show. The art is very nice, although I didn't like the cartoony way the Storyteller was drawn. He looks too much like a Rankin Bass character.
Old Fire Dragaman — From an Appalachian Jack Tale
Adapted by Jeff Paker and illustrated by Tom Fowler
This tale was brilliant fun, and in tone and style almost captures The Storyteller. You have Jack of the Fables, three beautiful sisters, enchanted gold treasure, a magic sword, and a giant called Dragaman. Tom Fowler's painterly art is full of magic and wonder, and this is a great little story. Unfortunately, the Storyteller and his Dog are relegated to the intro pages only, when they should have had a greater presence.
Puss in Boots — From a French Fairy Tale
Adapted by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer
Everything I said about Old Fire Dragaman and The Milkmaid and Her Pail holds true for this story. If this were just an adaptation of Puss in Boots then it would be a hit. Its beautiful. Jennifer L. Meyer's art is diaphanous and dreamlike. Marjorie Liu hits all the right notes. But there is no Storyteller.
The Frog Who Became an Emperor — From a Chinese Folktale
Adapted by Paul Tobin and Evan Shaner
Tobin and Shaner do an admirable job. The art was a bit too cartoony for my tastes, and the colors too garish, but it was fun over all. Unfortunately again, the Storyteller and his Dog are almost irrelevant, appearing for only a few panels.
The Crane Wife — From a Japanese Folktale
Adapted by Katie Cook
This story I know very well, and I thought Katie Cook did a great job with it. The art, coloring, and small touches to the original folktale are all perfect, and it was a joy to read. Unfortunately, once again… this is an adaptation of a Japanese folktale, not an adaptation of The Storyteller doing a Japanese folktale.
Momotaro the Peachboy — From a Japanese Folktale
Adapted by Ron Marz and Craig Rousseau
Another story I know like the back of my hand, this was a unique take of doing a text-and-illustrations version in the fashion of a Japanese illustrated scroll rather than a regular comic. And to beat my dead horse once again… all comments on the above stories hold true here as well.
The Witch Baby — From an Early Russian Folktale
Based on the unproduced Storyteller teleplay written by Anthony Minghella. Susan Kodieck, and Anne Mountfield
Adapted by Nate Cosby with art by Ronan Cliquet
Finally, finally a story gets it right. But of course, that is because this is adapted from an actual Anthony Minghella screen play for The Storyteller, and is more than just a drawn folktale. The Storyteller and his Dog wander through their own path, telling a story through a pack of Tarot cards about a cruel King and Queen, and unwanted Prince, and the dreadful Witch Baby that was born to take his place.
Everything about this story was perfect. Ronan Cliquet's art is the right blend of realism and fantasy, and manages to capture some of the weird angles and cinematography of the show. The Witch Baby is an atrocious monster, and I am sad I never got to see her realized as a puppet. But all in all, fully satisfying.
If they get around to making The Storyteller Volume Two, Archaia Entertainment needs to remember what made The Storyteller great was, in fact, the Storyteller. That was what really set the series apart from similar genre shows like Fairy Tale Theater, which this collection has more in common with. Out of eight stories, only one got it right. The other stories, while enjoyable, were just not The Storyteller.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.