Monday, February 20, 2012

Tale of Sand: Grains through the hourglass, I guess

Jim Henson's Tale of Sand
"Realized" by Ramon Perez
Based on a screenplay by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl
Published by Archaia

Jim Henson's name, image, words, and legacy are all over this book, but lest you go in expecting Muppety comedy, the introduction by Lisa Henson the Henson Company's Karen Falk makes sure to spotlight his work with experimental short films and animation, such as the Oscar-nominated "Time Piece", which definitely seems to be the precursor to what was meant to be a feature film but eventually ended up as this book. It was wise to calibrate expectations, since this is not the cuddly puppeteering of Sesame Street, although the story does retain the anarchic sensibilities that Henson utilized so well in his best work. The type of story is completely different than one would expect though, being a surreal, absurdist, possibly metaphorical string of craziness, one which doesn't make much sense, but is certainly memorable in its ideas and imagery.

Said story might be a Joseph Campbell-style hero's journey, or a symbol of the randomness and unpredictability of life, or just a bunch of non sequiturs piled on top of each other, but whatever the case, it's entertaining and fast moving, following a blank slate of a man (apparently named Mac, although I don't think this is ever stated in the story itself) who wanders into some sort of festival in what appears to be a small town in the American Southwest, then, after the festivities turn out to be in his honor, gets sent on a quest through the desert to reach an eagle-shaped rock formation, although the reason for the journey is never specified, and a sinister man sporting a pointy goatee and eye patch is pursuing him and apparently trying to kill him, or at least make the trip as difficult as possible.

And off we go for non-stop insanity for the rest of the book, with goofy shenanigans dogging Mac's heels at every turn, whether he's being shot at or attacked by tanks, run over by cars on suddenly appearing on an empty road, hit in the face with a pie by a sunbathing lady, captured by sword-wielding Arabs, or pursued by cowboys and football players. He starts out confused by all the oddness going on around him, but eventually figures out how to use the random-seeming resources allotted to him to his benefit, or at least to keep himself alive and barely one step ahead of his pursuers. Things eventually devolve into an extended chase scene that resolves in a near-apocalyptic manner, with little in the way of resolution except that he reaches his destination and the book ends.

I would like to be able to tease out some of the metaphors in this story, but it's all too nonsensical and goofy to really mean much more than whatever arbitrary symbols one chooses to ascribe to the myriad characters, incidents, and settings. But that doesn't really matter when the thing is so damn entertaining and lovely to look at. It's pretty much a book-length chase sequence that barely stops to breathe, each new incident more surreal and silly than the last, and laid down on the paper with such energy by Ramon Perez that one can't complain without seeming like a killjoy.

Perez proves himself as a hell of a talent here, delivering gorgeous landscapes, appealing character designs, and fluid movement that makes all the action clear (or as clear as possible in a world based on dream logic) while using a minimum of dialogue. He regularly lays out double-page spreads that see a bunch of smaller panels cluster around a main image, bringing a chaotic energy to the story that is nonetheless easy to follow and entertaining as all get out. And the colors! The basic palette follows the yellow-and-purple of the cover, but it doesn't stop there, introducing pinks and blues when scenes unexpectedly shift to new locations and seemingly-incompatible characters and settings get smashed together. The clear, solid linework occasionally fades into gorgeous watercolors that spotlight the desert location, but given the high energy, it never fails to snap back into clarity, even when the proceedings have devolved into a jumble of nonsense.

I can't say I understand this book, but I sure had a great time reading it. The assortment of entertaining weirdness, movement, expression, and design that Perez throws onto the page never stops being enthralling, and even if it ends up making little sense, it's a journey worth taking again and again just to marvel at the gorgeousness of the presentation. Not everything has to make sense, but when it doesn't, it's especially nice if it's a hell of a lot of fun.