It is a bit difficult to examine a book like Once Upon a Time Machine without discussing the art which comprises much of the storytelling. The rise of the graphic novel format has added a level of intricacy to book review that may necessitate the inclusion of somewhat unusual observations by the reviewer, as the literary value of an image is often vastly different from the written word. However, when the two work in concert, wonderful things can happen for the reader. With that somewhat cryptic disclaimer out of the way, then: let’s have a look.
With fifty interpretations of classic tales running the gamut from Peter Pan to Unicorns to John Henry to Pygmalion, Once Upon a Time Machine brings in artists of every style to illustrate the updated version of the stories with writers have concocted. While some of these updates can be considered better than others, what is immediately clear—in terms of the art—is that the style of the illustration has been chosen to augment the style of the writing or the updated setting of the story.
For example, in the updated story of the “Ugly Duckling,” here titled “The Ugly Part,” the childlike issues of acceptance, even in light of today’s emphasis on bullying, are animated in a rather simplistic style, with curved instead of bent arms on the people, and very simplistic color schemes, right up until the unveiling of the no-longer-Ugly Part. This style of illustration enhances the nature of the story, and, in this instance, is critical for a complete understanding of the tale.
Similarly, the story of “The Five Chinese Brothers” benefits from the use of a not-quite-manga style of illustration, but one that is clearly evocative of the “Far East,” and one which supports the little-changed storyline of the tale, allowing [End Page 74] readers to more fully envelope themselves in the plight of the poor Chinese inventor and the lengths he goes to in order to protect his son.
Finally, in what I feel to be one of the most brilliant choices in the book, the illustrator of “The Crossing”—the update to “The Billy Goats Gruff”—uses watercolors to flesh out the person and environment of the heroine, Billie, as she navigates the world of the “‘Trol house” (234) in attempt to bring medicine back to the GRF, pronounced “gruff,” in order to save a life. Billie navigates the omnipresent canals in a kayak, and the choice of watercolor as the medium for telling this story is a stroke of genius by writer and illustrator Charles Fetherolf, linking together the water of the classic tale with the medium of its new telling.
It is touches such as this that enhance the literary value of the overall work. Whatever a reader might think about any particular story, it is clear that much thought was put into how the story would be shown, not simply how it would be told. The right choice leads to a fuller experience, while the wrong choice can either blunt the impact or destroy it altogether.
As for the updating of the stories themselves, it is clear from the totality of Once Upon a Time Machine that some stories update better than others, provided the aim is to keep the newer version recognizable as the original. In this regard, Once Upon a Time Machine is far more hits than misses. Most notable among the hits is the updated telling of the legend of John Henry. No longer simply a miner fighting for his livelihood against the relentlessness of the steam drill, John Henry is now the pilot of an advanced space exploration ship, moving into more and more dangerous areas in search of precious energies. The contest now pits John Henry against intelligent robots who can better withstand the hazards of exploration and energy collection in areas such as the event horizon of a black hole. Where John Henry’s robot opponent would allow itself to be destroyed by advancing too far in, John Henry sacrifices himself to...