Get the picture? David Hill

The Heading Dog Who Split in Half: Legends and Tall Tales from New Zealand
Michael Brown and Mat Tait
Potton and Burton, $40.00,
ISBN 9781927213575

One of my reservations about graphic novels has been that they limit readers’ imaginative options. Just as films and television impose one version of a character (can anyone now read Pride and Prejudice without being hijacked by Colin Firth’s soaked shirt and smoulder or Jennifer Ehle’s curls and cleavage?), so graphic novels remove our need and chance to shape characters.

A silly, pretentious fret, I admit. You might as well complain that Lynley Dodd forced us to see Hairy Maclary as small, black and spiky, or J M W Turner prohibits us from seeing nature’s sharp edges. And, indeed, the images of The Heading Dog Who Split in Half neither prescribe nor proscribe.

You – meaning I – read graphic novels at a different pace from what I’ll limply call conventional fiction. With the latter, you scroll down page after page. Your pace is uniform, except for the flick back to check a name, or the leap forward to skip a phrase (a chapter, in the case of Jeffrey Archer). With graphic novels, you pause, scan and absorb, move on. A bit like poetry, I guess. The narrative doesn’t so much unroll as step. It’s also – of course – like promenading through an art gallery. An old-fashioned gallery, where they have pictures.

This is a bold and appropriately handsome production from Potton and Burton. Big pages; rich paper; thick, matt gradations of black and white that are at their best in the generous double-page spreads.

Mat Tait’s work is sharp and packed with perspective. He can be monumental or pop; there’s character and caricature. He acknowledges styles and conventions which I can recognise but can’t name. A few eyes stare portentously. You’ll linger over big images: an enchanted summer night at Cargill Castle or a potent rendering of the Tarawera canoe and its fearsome, beast-headed crew.

Michael Brown, meanwhile, writes supportively and mostly succinctly. He knows what to leave out and when to pack words in. Lushness lurks, but seldom intrudes.

An intermittently prolix introduction tells us these are New Zealand folk narratives from the past two centuries, “when new tales were spun and old traditions adapted”. That “spun” could make critical antennae twitch apprehensively. We’re also informed they’re mostly legends or tall tales. “Tall” in folk narratives too often translates as long and floppy, so good on Brown and Tait for avoiding such sloughs.

Most of the Satisfying Seven have indeed been around for a fair bit. One, the intriguing “Legend of Tunnel Beach”, came to the author’s and illustrator’s notice just a couple of years back. It’s a substantial narrative of the uber-protective Victorian father who has private access blasted and dug to a Dunedin beach, so his daughters may bathe privately. It ends in an intriguing blend of misery and mystery. Setting is verified; veracity considered. Nicely done.

There’s some Crumpish stuff: the titular canine whose bisection by a fence makes him even more effective; “The Day the Pub Burned Down”, a jaunty narrative which reaffirms that rhyming couplets have their limits (the form works better in the sea-shanty of Razo, a nice affirmation of how incompetence can still win the girl). We learn about “The Great Waihi Crayfish”, a crustacean so colossal that its eyeballs were used for indoor bowls and its shell became a baby’s pram. There’s an affectionate, not too saccharine love story of whaler and “slave princess”, while “The Phantom Canoe” combines spectacle, history, cultural awareness and Gothic portent.

Brown and Tait send themselves and the conventions up a few times, which is always appealing. They shake their heads in an agreeably fuddy-duddy manner at the atrophying of our national imagination. They also work hard to establish provenance or suggest probability, to place the stories in their literary or cultural context. They provide full notes, sources, even reading lists.

The genre attracts; the content engages. It’s a good collaboration; you get the feeling each trusts the other to do his job. As a gift to visitors, it beats the hell out of Frodo’s Middle-Earth Guide to New Zealand any time. Yes, I’m impressed.


David Hill’s new YA novel, Enemy Camp, is published by Penguin Random House.

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Posted in Graphic novel, Literature, Review
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