It’s not really all that surprising that someone with Matt Phelan’s background would end up making a graphic novel. Phelan’s a rather prolific illustrator, probably best known for picture book Always with writer Ann Stott and 2007 Newbery winnerThe Higher Power of Lucky with Susan Patron.
While illustrated books and comics are, of course, different media, it’s certainly possible to think of them on the same imaginary spectrum, with a comic being a little like an illustrated prose book with the dial that controls the picture-to-word ratio turned way up.
That seems as good an explanation as any as to why Phelan’s first graphic novelThe Storm In The Barn (Candlewick Press), is such an accomplished one—it’s basically just a very long picture book, with very few words, and more than one picture per page, you know?
It’s set in Kansas in 1937, during the Dust Bowl period that generated all of those sad Dorothea Lange photos in your junior high history class.
Our protagonist is Jack, an eleven-year-old boy whose family is suffering like all the other farming families. It hasn’t rained in years, and no rain means no farming, and no farming means nothing but poverty and dust as far as the eye can see.
Additionally, one of Jack’s sisters is slowly dying from a terrible cough, he’s picked on by the other boys, he’s suspected of having “dust dementia” when he starts seeing things and he’s feeling somewhat emasculated by the weather. Well, not emasculated so much as eboyulated—just as the men in town are made to feel worthless by their inability to farm, Jack feels worthless because he’s unable to help farm, as boys his age should be doing.
The things Jack sees—mysterious flashes of light emanating from a neighbor’s locked barn, a strange figure that looks like it has rain for a face—may actually be clues to the source of the drought. If Jack can just be brave and clever enough, he might end up being an unlikely hero, like all the Jacks in the fairy tales a grown-up friend of his is always telling him.
Phelan’s artwork has a soft-focused, almost ethereal quality about it. Using a muted, limited palette of watercolors over somewhat sketchy pencils and inks, his panels all seem at least partially obscured by dust or darkness.
The images all look appropriately old and insubstantial, and it’s nice to see the form of a comic work like this so strongly serving the content of the story it’s telling.
Phelan allows long stretches of the story to pass without words, confidently relying on the pictures to do their job, and when words appear, they do so in type over the pictures; Phelan eschews the traditional white dialogue bubbles, so that dialogue never covers up the artwork.
In a work like this, where the colors in the background of each panel are so important to establishing the mood of the scene, that’s certainly a good thing.
There are certainly elements of fantasy to The Storm in the Barn, but they are extremely few—few enough that one could probably read the story one of two ways. Perhaps the embodiment of the rain has maliciously hidden itself away in a barn, or perhaps Jacks just thinks it has.
Either way, The Storm in the Barn remains an engaging coming of age story with a fairy tale accent, set in one of more dramatic moments in twentieth century America.
Related: Zack Smith spoke with Phelan about the book for the main site back in July. You can read their interview here.