Back in September of 2006, the Books section of Blogcritics shone its spotlight on the British author and fantasist Neil Gaiman. In a period of about two weeks I ended up reading four novels, a couple of collections of short stories, and one movie script. While I appreciated each individual title at the time, I have to admit that I was probably suffering from sensory overload before I was halfway through the pile of books resting beside my computer.
Neil Gaiman's writing is so vivid it's impossible to read his books without having your imagination stimulated to the extent that your mind's eye is flooded with imagery. Anything from pictures of characters to panoramic vistas of strange landscapes could pop into your mind unbidden as you read through his work. It's no wonder that so many of his stories have either been created, or adapted by others, for graphic novels and film. If there was ever an author whose work cried out to be illustrated, it's Neil Gaiman.
What's wonderful about Gaiman's work is that it ranges stylistically from the brooding urban fantasy of Neverwhere and Mirrormask to the near pastoral atmosphere of Stardust. As a result there has been room for so much diversity in the pictorial representations of his work that no two works are have had the exact same look. Unlike some of his contemporaries whose work has the same feel pretty much all the time and becomes predictable after a while, you can never be sure what you're going to "see" when you begin reading a Neil Gaiman story.
The first time I read Stardust a couple of years ago it was in a standard paperback edition that had line drawings and ornamentation scattered throughout the text, but it wasn't what you would call illustrated by any means. When the DVD version of the film was released I was impressed by their interpretation of the story and how they visualized it, but I felt there was still something lacking in the experience.
So when I found out that DC's graphic novel imprint Vertigo had released a new, fully illustrated version of Stardust last fall, I was intrigued. Somehow, perhaps because it was published by Vertigo, I had assumed it was a graphic novel adaptation of the story, but it is a true illustrated version of the original text. Originally published as softcover, this version is a deluxe, oversized, hardcover that not only reproduces all of Charlie Vess's original artwork, but comes with additional pieces that he created specifically for this publication.
Stardust, for those who are still unfamiliar with the story, tells of the adventures of Tristran Thorn and his quest into the land of faerie to retrieve a fallen star in order to win the hand of his true love in marriage. Along the way he meets many characters, both savoury and unsavoury, of whom the most important is Yvaine, the fallen star. While most people might have been deterred by the fact the object they set out to retrieve was in actual fact a person, Tristan initially remains resolute in his intent to return the star to his home in the village of Wall as proof of his devotion to his lady love.
Of course stories being what they are, nothing goes according to plan, although everything works out fine in the end. Tristran grows up considerably, marries the love of his life, and learns a thing or two about life, the universe, and everything. In short it's your typical fairy tale, but as they say in the movies, it's rated for a mature audience because of adult subject matter. In other words, the characters are anatomically correct and have sex — something usually unheard of in fairy tales, but only stands to reason when you think about it. Even people born under toadstools have to have parents, and the parents have to do something to ensure propagation of the species.
There's also a fair bit of what's now referred to as fantasy violence, what with evil witches and ambitious princes, all who will stop at nothing to get what they want, including, but not limited to, the heart of a fallen star. So there is a fair bit of stabbing, poisoning, hacking off of heads, entrail reading, and other similarly gruesome activity that when illustrated might prove a little too much for a younger audience.
Where a graphic novel tells a story relying in equal measure upon illustrations, text, and dialogue and an illustrated book will depict highlights from the text, this telling falls somewhere in between the two. This version of Stardust is so replete with black and white drawings and coloured paintings illuminating moments from the text and vividly depicting the setting, the story comes to life and almost jumps off the page.
Charlie Vess's style of illustration is probably not what most fans of graphic novels are used to, as his work has more in common with 19th century watercolour paintings than the bold colours and strong lines that have became the trademark of late 20th century fantasy art. But that doesn't stop him from being able to paint heart-stoppingly beautiful landscapes, nor does it soften the blow of any of the violent or macabre scenes.
In fact they become somewhat even more disturbing when seen depicted in the muted colours of watercolour due to our own expectations of the medium. I know for myself that normally I would associate that style with pastoral images or something equally peaceful and sublime in nature. So the contrast between the style and the act depicted makes the violence even more unsettling than if the realism we're accustomed to with graphic novels was used.
However, the real highlights of this book remain the full page spreads that depict various locales in the story. There is a wonderful painting of the market which is a delight to spend time lingering over, because the longer you look the more you see, as details that weren't visible at first continually appear. In fact that's a characteristic of Vess's style in general; there is always much more to any of the paintings then at first meets the eye, and it definitely pays to linger over all of his drawings.
Now I realize I've not said much about the story itself, and what sort of job the author has done. In short, (for more details, may I direct you to my earlier Stardust review) it is not only a wonderful romantic adventure story told with a great deal of humour and intelligence, it also understands the difference between romantic sentimentality and genuine emotion. Without preaching or moralizing, Gaiman very gently lets us know a few important things about growing up, and how being true to yourself is still more important than almost anything else in the world.
For those of you who have never read Stardust and to those of you who have only read it in the regular book form, I would suggest that you have not really experienced the story in its fullest until you read the illustrated version from Vertigo. It may cost more than other editions, but for what you get, I'd say its worth every penny, and probably more so. It's the perfect example of how a wonderful story is made exquisite by the right illustrations.