Picture Story Theatre by Duncan and Danner, reviewed by Sahsha Andrade
Think back to your favorite book from childhood, during a time when your books were equal parts art and written word. Books with lettering sized so big that they eclipsed the text found in large print books. Pages filled with bright and colorful illustrations, spines covered in gold foil. scratch and sniff stories, or tales where texture adhered to the pages let you feel the fur of a bunny, or the rough bark of a tree. These books were your first exposure to imaginative stories told with words and pictures.
This is Picture Story Theatre, in a nutshell.
Alexander Danner and Bill Duncan have created a collection of nine stories (as of this writing) that range from whimsical (Fantastic Zoology: The Coastal Giraffe) to slightly disturbing (The Unusual Education of Suzy Finnegan). The stories generally fall into two categories: stories about a little girl named Amy, or a mix of self-contained tales. The only exception to this is a collection of poems (illustrated by Duncan) and written by PSTâ€™s editor, Steven Withrow. Story themes that appear in this collection involve death, mortality, children coping with divorce, parental expectations, fear, anger and to a lesser extent, bullies. Their most recent story Together Again (now completed) is a twist on the classic tale of Humpty Dumpty.
The nine stories are a quick read since many of them are displayed entirely on one page. In three of these stories, the text is a combination of narration and third person limited omniscience separated from the imagery or placed outside of the picture frame. This method of delivering narrative reinforces the storybook feel. The remaining stand-alone stories within the collection employ dialogue via word balloons. Amy stories contain no text; the art is used to convey narrative.
The artwork in PST is devoid of line; only color is used to create the characters and backgrounds in each story. The vivid palette used in stories like Fantastic Zoology or The Little Bear Who Knew Fear are crisp and complementary: they succeed in defining the characters and their environments. In stories like Together Again or Robots Abroad where Duncan begins to mix the colors together slightly, the end results are richer for it. Out of the stand-alone tales, Fantastic Zoology and Together Again really shine. Fantastic Zoology tells two stories by using dry, factual information regarding giraffes accompanied by the fantastic, whimsical images of a "coastal giraffe" swimming and adventuring from one location to another. Together Again uses this tactic in a far subtler way: the third-person narrator allows us to view the actual thoughts of both Humpty Dumpty and the King, but the thoughts of other characters appearing In the story are displayed as thought balloons within the Imagery.
The Amy stories in this collection employ a very limited color palette of purple and pink in conjunction with one or two primary colors. Duncanâ€™s brightening or darkening of the base color creates different shades of pink and purple. Since the pink and purple hues that comprise each panel are very close to one another in brightness and intensity, it can become difficult at time (depending on your monitor settings) to pick things out in areas. The images recede even further when primary colors are used. Also, blurring of figures or objects to focus in on certain actions taking place in the picture plane make everything look like a pale blob at first glance. Out of the three Amy stories, Amy's Double Life suffers the least from a monochrome palette because the shift in hue from one shade of purple to the next is significant no matter what your monitor settings are.
Story-wise, the heart of the collection really rests within the Amy stories. They're refreshing, mainly because they're contemporary stories about a little girl dealing with schoolyard bullies, death, and growing up in a household divided by divorce. There is a plethora of children's and young adult literature on the market dealing with these topics. However there is a lack of similar, fast-loading material online. This is amazing, since the trend of children using the Internet as a research tool, study aid, and source of entertainment keeps growing.
Even though the pool of stories is small (the tenth story, Amy Considers Her Options began publication too late to include in this review), itâ€™s a series worth reading. The stories are cleverly constructed and complemented by the art, and the childrenâ€™s storybook style delivery is a refreshing deviation in format for an online comic. And they may just make you feel like a kid again.
When she's not dealing with irate law students who owe library books, Sahsha can be found writing and illustrating her own webcomic, Nekko and Joruba.