The Book of Ballads
Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 11-14-2004
191 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 12-25-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004
Calculated super-star collaborations have a way of falling short. The whole is alas often less than the sum of the parts. Fortunately that's not an issue with the gorgeous new collection from Tor helmed by Charles Vess, 'The Book of Ballads'. Drawn from the pages of Vess' self-published magazine 'The Book of Ballads and Sagas' and from new material original to the book, this assortment of illustrated stories derived from classic English ballads is a breakthrough publication for Tor. It's their first graphic novel -- though it's not really a novel -- and it's as close to perfect an illustration of what can be done with the form as one could hope.
The quality certainly starts with the introduction by Terri Windling. Windling provides a lively and scholarly article about the origins of ballads that's captivating and very entertaining. It also provides the perfect preparation for the story collection that follows. The plan here is simple and remarkably effective. Fantasy's biggest names -- including Neil Gaiman, Charles De Lint, Jane Yolen and Emma Bull -- and some surprises, such as noted mystery writer Sharyn McCrumb -- each chose a traditional ballad, and created a storyline. Charles Vess illustrates the stories, and the ballad itself is printed after the illustrated story. This formula yields reliably remarkable results. But don't confuse the word reliable with predictable. The stories and presentations offer a nice variety, with the cohesiveness achieved by the work of lynchpin Vess.
Neil Gaiman starts the story portion of the book with 'The False Knight of the Road'. In this story, a self-assured young boy goes to school and encounters a fantastical knight. Gaiman's sparse, poetic style suits the detailed line drawings of Vess. Together they achieve a visual and lyrical power that concludes with great subtlety. Jane Yolen's 'King Henry' is a bit more of a horror story, but illustrated in the same very detailed manner. Both of these stories use the familiar format of panels and words to great effect; with the Gaiman entry, the words are mostly underneath the panels, while in the Yolen story, you get more balloons.
This formula is successfully executed with a variety of authors and variations. The art in 'The Three Lovers', with a script by Lee Smith is a bit sparser, as are the words. I really enjoyed 'the Black Fox', with a story by Emma Bull. In this one, Vess mutates his art, shifting from simple drawings to a super-detailed finale. The story is really fun, as an American woman takes part in an English foxhunt, proving herself more capable than any suspect.
What makes the collection especially delightful are those works that vary the graphic storytelling formula. 'Tam Lin', with a script by Elaine Lee, a series of gorgeously detailed drawings set off by pages of typeset script, a sort of stage play that's surreal and rather entertainingly scholarly. Vess himself provides the poetic ballad 'Alison Gross', again simply a typeset ballad, illustrated by Vess. It's a creepy, tragic horror story that rings through with an undercurrent of romance and true love.
Tor is to be commended for producing a high-quality hardcover that's nicely bound, very durable and beautifully printed. The artwork of Charles Vess is particularly well suited to the way the book is printed. In this way, Tor gave themselves and Vess a great break. This is a fine quality volume in all aspects, though I would nitpick their decision not to page number the tales themselves. Still, even I go back and forth on that one. It's nice to have the stories in a pure form.
As a reader of typeset books, one of the potential pitfalls for me in the world of graphic novels is lettering. Vess does a wonderful job on the lettering this book. It's always a pleasure to read.
The collection is followed by Discography Notes for musical versions of the works illustrated within. Ken Roseman is an incisive authority who lists versions performers, discs, and websites and gives histories of the performers. For readers who want to hear the works they've just seen illustrated sung by the modern masters, this article provides a roadmap for thousands of dollars of musical purchases. Peruse it at your own risk.
It was certainly inevitable that Tor would enter the graphic novel market. That they've done so with such high style, with such great quality, bodes well for future publications. It also bodes well for readers who want to go wading into the deep waters of the graphic novel world. This book is highly recommended on every level. If you've never read a graphic novel and wonder what all the hubbub is about, 'The Book of Ballads' is so well wrought it's almost guaranteed to appeal to any reader. Veteran readers of graphic novels will want to have a sturdy, nicely produced hardcover version of the works within. Most importantly, it functions as a perfect coming out party for the man in the center Charles Vess. He's been hard at work for years collaborating with top authors, from Neil Gaiman to a forthcoming illustrated edition of George R. R. Martin's 'A Storm of Swords'. Here he gets a well-deserved top billing. 'The Book of Ballads' deserves top billing as well, as collection that transcends a number of genres. It's just a great book.