Book Review: The Golden Compass Graphic Novel, Volume 1, Stéphane Melchior-Durand (2015)

March 23rd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Not really feeling the artwork…

four out of five stars

Let me preface this review by saying that I’m a huge (HUGE!) fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Not the World’s Biggest Fan, because that honor obviously goes to Laurie Frost (author of The Elements of His Dark Materials, an exhaustive, 560-page HDM reference book endorsed by the man himself). But big enough that I own more than a dozen non-fiction titles about the franchise, including a quiz book, and have been planning a HDM-themed menu for the Vegan Month of Food (google it!) for years. (The pressure! I want everyone to love the series as much as I do, you know?) In times of grief, I turn to certain passages from The Subtle Knife for comfort. I know I tend to throw around the word “favorite” in book reviews, but His Dark Materials is my all-time favorite book. (And yes, I count the omnibus as a single entity.) So, pretty big.

When I saw that the series would receive the graphic novel treatment, I was predictably psyched. I instantly pre-ordered a copy – but by the time it arrived, months later, life had gotten pretty chaotic. I had barely enough time to flip through it before I was forced to relinquish it to ye ole TBR pile. What I saw was not encouraging: the artwork put me off right away. Having already been burned once by the film adaptation, excitement gave way to dread.

But you know what? Now that I’ve read it, I’m actually pleasantly surprised. Granted, I’m still less than thrilled with the illustrations. Everything is hard lines and sharp angles. Lyra in particular is scrappy, and not in a good way; her hair seems to have fought a losing battle with a weed whacker, and in some panels the twelve-year-old girl looks more like a thirty-year-old smoker. (Hard living, man.)

To be fair, though, the daemons are as lovely as the humans are unattractive. The golden monkey, in particular, is just as I imagined him: gorgeous and fierce and full of hate and evil. Likewise, the cover art is simply stunning. I wish the inside was even just half as colorful and vibrant.

For a graphic novel, it’s a little more dialogue-heavy than I’m accustomed to; as a result, on certain pages (or even spreads) the artwork is absolutely dwarfed by speech bubbles. (Though you could count this as a positive or a negative, I suppose.)

Yet the adaptation by Stéphane Melchior-Durand is actually pretty good. Volume 1 spans the period when we first meet Lyra and Pan hiding in a cupboard in Jordan College at the time of Lord Asriel’s return, through her tutelage and escape from Mrs. Coulter, right up to the point when Lord Faa agrees to let Lyra accompany the Gyptians on their rescue mission to the North. This is the first of three planned volumes and, if the first one is any indication, the set should come in somewhere around 250 pages. While some scenes are changed a little – for example, to provide needed context and detail – the comic is true to the spirit and feel of the original story.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend reading it cold. There’s a lot of information left out – as I read, I could feel my brain spinning to fill in the blanks – and without the necessary background, the story’s bound to feel confusing or incomplete. This is a series best suited to existing fans. Once the entire series is available, I can definitely see myself re-reading it when I need an HDM fix but don’t have time to tackle the novels.

It might also be useful for parents who want to introduce their children to Lyra and Iorek and the world of the mulefa. Even though the trilogy is classified as YA, it’s a complex and nuanced story; and at more than 1,000 pages, it might prove too much for younger readers. The graphic novel could make a nice stepping stone for this audience in particular. For adults, though, I’d recommend reading the source material first.

On a final note, what most concerns me about these adaptations (above and beyond the artwork, even) is the time line: if each book translates to three volumes, with a new volume released every year, then it’ll take a decade (okay, nine years) before the project is done. WTF!? It doesn’t take artists this long to create new material from scratch! Nine years is kind of bonkers, especially considering that Philip Pullman wrote the trilogy in seven! Egads.

Four stars for my fangirl heart; two or three, probably, for new readers.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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