Perhaps no creator's name is more synonymous with his creation than Jim Henson's is with The Muppets, that cadre of frantic, felt-coated, anthropomorphic show-puppets, revived for viewers young and old this fall in a well-regarded, if not quite blockbuster, Disney feature film. Henson died young and unexpectedly in 1990, and every single obituary at the time pictured the man with his masterwork, the easygoing and slightly melancholy frog called Kermit.
If Kermit ever goes looking for answers about his late "father," about what really drove the man and his art, there are some to be had in Tale of Sand, Archaia's new graphic novel based upon a "lost" screenplay written in the late '60s and early '70s by Henson and his collaborator Jerry Juhl, who worked with Henson on all of his Muppet endeavors and stayed involved through the 1990s long after his friend's death. Juhl passed away in 2005.
While The Jim Henson Company remains a reasonably potent entertainment brand, and the Muppets certainly have many more opportunities to charm future generations thanks to the corporate stewardship of The Walt Disney Company, one gets the immediate impression in reading Tale of Sand that there was more to the Henson/Juhl creative output than family-friendly puppetry. I never liked the Muppets much, but Jim and Jerry had bigger ideas, and this book is full of them.
The tricky work of bringing these notions to life falls to Canadian artist Ramon Perez (his credit on the book is the unusual but all-encompassing "as realized by") and Archaia's editor-in-chief Stephen Christy, who announced the project at San Diego Comic Con in 2010 and updated me on its progress in the many months since. In short, putting this thing together was heavy, daily work, subject to myriad approvals by Henson's heirs and, according to Christy, slavishly faithful to the original script by Jim and Jerry.
(Some disclosure: Christy edited my 2010 book Syndrome. There's even a rumor he's overseeing my next one, as well. He's edited a dozen or so books since I've known him. Tale of Sand is the only one of those I've ever chosen to write about.)
The finished volume, at 160 pages long, arrived in stores last week in the form of a hefty, large-format hardcover slab with world-class package design by the great Eric Skillman (Google Image Search that name and kiss several hours of your time goodbye). Tale of Sand costs $30, a bargain for Henson completists but certainly a hefty price for anyone else. On first glance, it's a luxury item, heavy with history and personal touches: a purple elastic ribbon binds the book shut like a giant, private journal, while a lengthy introduction by Henson historian Karen Falk and and a laudatory afterword by Henson's daughter Lisa express excitement that this "lost" story is finally seeing the light of day. Endpapers and backmatter shower the reader with unseen family photos of Jim and Jerry at work and at play, marked-up, typewritten screenplay pages and detailed biographies of the two men. The provenance behind this book threatens to overwhelm at times, and relentlessly begs the question, "Well, how is it as a comic?"
It's fantastic. And I'm happy to report that the only thing Tale of Sand shares with The Muppets franchise is a fast, unpredictable pace. That said, it's not for the comics novice, and invites open, thoughtful interpretation, challenging the reader into a maze of symbolic, loaded, perfectly rendered imagery.
Now, there's a great, big idiom at play behind this book that hasn't been mentioned in the publicity material that I've seen about it. Perhaps (but perhaps not) it's a spoiler to say that Tale of Sand is a pure dream story, fueled appropriately by dream logic, and brimming with non-sequiturs and vivid juxtapositions. In that sense, the book easily earns its place among the great dream narratives of recent history: Christopher Nolan's Inception, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Jim Woodring's Frank, and the most nightmarish and upsetting stories by the great Gilbert Hernandez.
Fans of these works, much more than garden variety Muppet aficionados, will feast on a beautifully-drawn and colored saga of a handsome "man on a mission" named Mac, racing through an undulating, pastel desert, following an unreliable treasure map and getting deliriously sidetracked from his journey at nearly every turn of the page.
True to Henson and Juhl's original plan — and particularly reminiscent of the Hernandez and Woodring works referenced above — is the story's unfolding with almost no conventional dialogue. Sure, there's some, just not a lot. Instead, the fundamental visual building block of Mac's harrowing journey is the wordless double-page spread, a unit of comic book storytelling that risks endangerment with the advent of scaled-down e-readers and downloadable comics. Warning: the visuals here are far too big to experience in any digi-format. Trust me, I tried, with state-of-the-art equipment, and enjoyed this book so much more in print than flat-panel pixels. Tale of Sand is all about the spreads, the bigger, the better, the more dangerous.
Gratifyingly, Perez has clearly given each of these spreads a great deal of care and consideration, managing complicated eye-lines and going to real pains not to repeat himself with panel shapes, proportions, tiers or mosaics. This is an artist who understands innately how the mind wants to read — to experience! — a comics page. Around fifty-one pages of the book's art are part of spreads and they're rightly the story's biggest, most dazzling moments, bursting with color, menace, sexuality and charm: a dance sequence in a jazz-soaked saloon, a showdown with the devil, a mushroom cloud, a bustling panorama of a sheik's lavish encampment, a sinister champagne toast, an unbeatable, whirring deathtrap. Some of these spreads have panel counts in the high teens and the mind reels at the preparation and sheer g
eometry Perez had to put into the biggest and smallest moments of the book, all in the name of keeping things unexpected and impactful. You won't see the mushroom cloud coming, and when it does, it hits hard.
But beyond the obvious craftsmanship on display — and magnified by Archaia's market-leading expertise when it comes to packaging and presenting a challenging graphic novel for the mainstream reader — is the real fun of this book. As a dream story, the reader is asked to bring his own subconscious to the table, to find the resonances and similarities within his own mind and personal history, and to truly engage with the twisted parade of Henson/Juhl/Perez-isms. You're right in it with these guys, even when a suspiciously Henson-like figure makes a half-cute, half-suggestive cameo. That moment works as a healthy reminder that to read this book is to participate in something larger than one's own taste, and to realize that each comics panel in Tale of Sand isn't just a window, it's a mirror. I promise you, you'll love what you see.