Tale of Sand
Created by: Ramón Pérez, Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl
Published by: Archaia
ISBN: 1936393093 (Amazon)
Sometimes the legacy of a creator is too great. Sometimes the lifetime of achievements by a single imaginative voice is so overbearing that it will forever eclipse that creator’s exterior works, making it impossible to view those works for what they are. But maybe that’s okay and maybe that’s how it ought to be. After all, a painter’s landscape cannot simply be a landscape on its own; it will always be a part of the painter, an extension of that artist’s life. The fourth book of an author exists always in contradistinction to the three it followed and those that might follow it.
It’s completely impossible to read anything J.K. Rowling writes without conjuring the spectre of Harry Potter—and maybe that’s right and good. A sentence is only sensible in context of the sentences among which it makes a home. Punch Drunk Love is lent a particular poignancy for the audience awareness of Adam Sandler’s prior oeuvre—and maybe that should be template for our interaction with all works. These cultural artifacts we enjoy do not and cannot stand alone and of their own. Every piece of music, literature, film, and art is the product of a single moment within a series of moments in the life of a creative source which exists in a creative epoch built of an endless complexity of circumstances, histories, motives, and movements. Each of these are important to the generation of the piece—and of course some bear more direct influence on the final result—so maybe it’s not necessarily unfortunate for a piece to be weighed under by the reputation of its builder.
So when I approach Tale of Sand, JIM HENSON’s Tale of Sand, perhaps we should embrace both the good and the harm that come to the work because of the association. Honestly, at this stage of the review, I’m not sure whether I appreciate the work more due the association or less. That’s part of what will be going on here. Me trying to decide. Regardless, let’s get base evaluation out of the way at the outset: Tale of Sand is worth most comics readers’ time11Though possibly not money, depending on how much one values story over art.—whether penned by Henson or not.
Tale of Sand is a bizarre experience nearly any way you cut it. Depending on the kind of reader you are, the first thing you’ll notice will be one of two things. Those who pay attention to covers and attribution will off the bat recognize that Jim Henson’s name is featured largely—to the point of being included in the book’s full title, Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand. Those who aren’t quite so concerned with covers or authorship will first open the book and be struck awed by Ramón K. Pérez’ mind-blowing illustrations.
I had seen scans of the book’s art before seeing its title or authorship, so I had the curious position of being sold on it wholly apart from Henson’s name. In fact, for me, Henson’s attachment to Tale of Sand had a rather diminishing effect on my expectations. I know Henson entirely from his puppetry. The Muppets, Sesame Street, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth. I like each of these moderately well but not so well that I’d ever seek out a work based on Henson’s involvement. And each of these held some tie to my childhood (even though The Muppets were originally tied to adult entertainment through Saturday Night Live). Suddenly I was concerned that a book with such great art would be rendered infantile by Henson’s writing. Pretty groundless, but expectations usually are.
Fancy meeting you here!
Honestly though, Henson’s and cohort Jerry Juhl’s writing is easily the chink in the armor of what is a pretty mouthwatering book. Tale of Sand‘s frontmatter clues us in to the situation. Henson and Juhl worked on a script for a surrealist film for several years in the ‘70s, pitching it around to little success. With the progress of other projects, Tale of Sand was boxed and shelved, where it lay hidden away for decades. Recently discovered, Henson’s company made an alliance with Archaia22I’m unclear whether the relationship grew out of Archaia’s handling of various other Henson IP or if that privilege is result of their relationship that began with Tale of Sand. to produce the film as a graphic novel. In comes Pérez with some of the most gorgeous, crisp, raucous comics art there is and you’ve got a pretty strange book.
Henson’s and Juhl’s idea sends a protagonist on a twisting romp through something like a dream. “Like a dream” in that I can’t guarantee that anyone has dreams that resemble the odd, rambling visual-narratory pace that overlays what is essentially a kind of tight formalism. Maybe people do dream like that. I bet Eco does. I, on the other hand, do not. So to me, the script felt like one of those events where an author tries to describe a dream but relies either too much on narrative thrust or on clichés that we’ve learnt to associate with dreams and dreaming. Then again, maybe the writing team never intended Tale of Sand to be interpreted as being a dream or even being dreamlike—though the title invokes certain ties to a sleepytime wonderland. Hard to say.
In either case though, the amount of story present is slight. Because of its surrealistic atmosphere, Tale of Sand probably ought to encourage readers to test out a variety of interpretations. Is this about Henson? Is it about the 20th century’s American male quest for purpose in a society that will not offer anything but the role of Sisiphus? Is this meant to be a statement about the reader/viewer? Is he saying something about the art of interpretation itself? Maybe. Maybe not. There’re not really enough solid tendrils onto which a reader might grasp to wrangle the authors’ intent for the work. I wasn’t particularly enamoured with that or the fact that none of the characters are really ever characters. They’re not even really probably literary devices. They exist only as colour for the palette of the protagonist’s journeyless journey.
And, thankfully, as something for Pérez to draw. Because, man, this cat can draw.
See? I totally told you so. Pérez takes remarkable command of Henson’s and Juhl’s probably copiously described fantasy.33Throughout, Pérez (either of his own volition or via editor recommendation) includes pieces of Henson’s and Juhl’s script. It’s a nice addition and ties the work more concretely to its origin. The artist mixes painted scenes with starkly conceived pen-and-ink illustrations. Sometimes there will be bursts of colour in nearly insane combinations while other instances will craft a subtle blend of monochromatic tones. Sometimes Pérez will play with double-page spreads while at others he will fidget with a page filled with smaller aspect-to-aspect paneling. And when he does use panels, his grid is all over the place. When he does use a grid. A lot of times he doesn’t.
Really, the art in this book is so big that it’s impossible for me to do it justice. Taking a two-pager and squeezing it down to fit in 519 pixels just seems fruitless. This is work that deserves to breathe. Tale of Sand would make a fantastic coffee table book—something for guests to browse through while their host retires for a few minutes to process the last hour’s dinner-followed-by-too-much-cheesecake. And because there’s so precious little in the way of actual narrative force, a visitor can pick it up, flip to any page, and begin reading with little damage to the experience. That kind of reading might actually play into the work’s governing theme of Sisyphusian circularity.
How ‘bout a little blatant sexual imagery!
Though I thought little of Henson’s and Juhl’s writing, it may have been the lack of absolute boundaries, a product of having no real story, that enables Pérez to cut loose so vibrantly. The artist blows off the rails early on and seems to feel little need to rein it in. When all you have is page after page of loony descriptions and the ground-level scene design of This Takes Place In A Dreamworld, the sky is apparently the limit. So hooray, I guess, for a weak story in favour of realizing such a stunning artistic achievement.
My dad’s hitting town tomorrow for a visit and I can’t wait to show him Pérez’ art.
There was one thing that left me a bit uncomfortable while reading. Henson’s script relies on a number of ethnic stereotypes. Angry arabs wielding scimitars. African tribsmen kowtowing to a white man in a pith helmet. An indian guide. I felt kind of like I was reading the less fondly considered volumes of Tintin. The thing is, I think there’s probably some reason for their inclusion.
In the foremost, the book is fraught with not just these stereotypes but with cliches from all over the history of the cinema. There has to be something to that. The book even invokes rather overtly Clouzot’s Wages of Fear. Also, if we take the era of authorship and the era from which the principal character seems drawn, there are internally logical explanations. From the early mid-‘70s, Henson and Juhl were penning a tale of a man who looks like a product of the late-‘50s. Such a man would have likely had his view of other cultures shaped by the slim window that an education purchased at the drive-in would have bestowed. Stereotype after stereotype. Now if Tale of Sand is meant to be his dream, then of course it would be populated by the stupid and backward imagery he had embraced in the theater.
This somewhat lets the tale’s authors off the hook because if this is all the hero’s dream, then the authors cannot be culpable at all. At least in the context of this book.
Now this does open up the question of interpretation a bit. I’m concerned that in my review above I gave no indication of there being a satisfying interpretation to the work. The possibility that Henson and Juhl were merely attempting to craft something that would be visually bizarre and mind-bending isn’t that palatable, and it’s perfectly plausible that they were really saying something with all the callouts to cinema tropes, the American frontier landscape, and the blatant sexual allusions (cf the above image).
The sad fact is that at least on a first reading, I approached Tale of Sand rather lazily. Maybe there’s much more going on beyond the mere surface. And maybe that deserves more time than I put in. I’d like to think that it does. And I’m sure that as I return to the work over the following years that I’ll be in a better place to plumb its depths.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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