The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship
Fred Fordham (artist), Philip Pullman (scripter), Becky Chilcott (design)
David Fickling Books with The Phoenix
May 30, 2017
“Trapped in the mists of time by a terrible research experiment gone wrong, John Blake and his mysterious ship are doomed to sail between the centuries, searching for a way home. In the ocean of the modern day, John rescues a shipwrecked young girl his own age, Serena, and promises to help.
But returning Serena to her own time means traveling to the one place where the ship is in most danger of destruction. The all-powerful Dahlberg Corporation has an ambitious leader with plans far greater and more terrible than anyone has realized, and he is hot on their trail. For only John, Serena, and the crew know Dahlberg’s true intentions, and only they have the power to stop him from bending the world to his will . . .”
The Adventures of John Blake is probably the worst title for a comic book I’ve encountered this year. It’s boring and it’s traditional, intensely; it implies unadorned genre conservatism and basic masculinity. It’s an accurate title, in how it describes the content of the book in the most literal of ways—there is a character named John Blake and he is involved in some adventure—but it is an inaccurate title in how it sells what’s on offer: it does not describe the content of the book in more practical fashion, that being neither boring nor traditional nor absolutely masculine. Calling this book The Adventures of John Blake kept me from reading this volume for three months by keeping my interest absent, though I have long counted myself a true admirer of Philip Pullman’s fiction. The cover doesn’t do a lot to break the title’s impression; a stern-faced boy jumping in front of an explosion. It’s more apparently Horowitz Hero than Lyra Silvertongue—it’s unfriendly, and I find that unfortunate. I should imagine it keeps more readers than me away, and unlike me most don’t have it sent to them for review.
The Adventures of John Blake is an ongoing collaboration between Pullman and cartoonist Fred Fordham that’s been running in UK kids’ weekly comics magazine The Phoenix. Mystery of the Ghost Ship, the subtitle of this book, is the name of that series’ first complete cycle. This volume is presented as, and is being reviewed as, a graphic novel, but is more precisely classified a trade collection—it was first published in serialisation, written for serialisation, and designed not to end so much as open. It’s easy to take breaks during one’s read and the overwhelming impression of experience is of forward-hustle. Neither of these aspects are bad; I would say both are quite good, as the former makes it easier to mete out a reading experience otherwise quite short, and the latter creates instant magnetism no matter where one picks up. For accomplished enough but reluctant prose readers or for those who struggle with attention and focus, this may be a perfect book. Serialisation often forces each entry to deliver the same amount of punch as the previous, in order to keep its audience returning (and its returning audience appreciative), and so collected serialisation offers a more evenly rhythmic narrative than those longer books designed to be read, or at least written, as a whole.
As a Pullman story, John Blake is not unfamiliar. Children on the cusp, boys and girls, pocket-sized answer machines, rare golden artefacts, parents whose experiments went too far. As with Lyra we dive into a parallel now, a world of slightly differing technology based tightly enough on our own that the tension caused by that difference is enlivening. As an adult, I read this thinking how I am jealous of Pullman and Fordham for achieving it. As a child, I would have simply been transported.
Unlike most of Pullman’s previous novels, the John Blake atmosphere is born of the “action” genre; movies based on huge books and huge books based on those movies; the utilitarian forward-motion of the airport novel or shooting-based video game. It feels like race against time and in fact is a race involving time: John Blake rides a timeswept “ghost ship” that turns up here and there throughout the seas and throughout history. His grandson, and the ship’s captain’s descendent Danielle, and a dreadfully powerful enemy Blake made during a stop in San Francisco all search for the ship, and none of them find it before Sabrina, an Australian adolescent who is herself swept into John Blake’s adventures when bad weather washes her overboard on a botched family globe circumnavigation. Gunfire, hacking and car chases batter the story forwards while giant skeletons bathed in red light and the serious comedy of grumpy Ancient Roman diesel-enamoured engineers keep things, if not light, at least magical aboard the ghost ship. This is good for the reader, but they also keep Sabrina from despairing of never seeing her family again.
But it is not only a Pullman story, it is also a Fred Fordham one. Pullman’s collaborator (more usually a cartoonist, a comics artist who draws his own narratives) shows a powerful sense of timing and motion, and manages to make physical jokes and expressive movement shine even through his adherence to representation of stoic realism. Fordham is English but his short creator biography specifies an interest in bandes-dessinees—that is, comics made for the francophone market—and this in perfect evidence within John Blake. Though single-page spreads are used to strong effect, eleven-panel pages are common and the average probably floats at around eight (much higher than American serial averages, for example). He uses high contrast shading, even in mist or through hologram or fog, and through palette choices places a heavy emphasis on outdoor weather or indoor lighting. His art has the sensation of slowing everything down to capture it just as it was, which both assures the brain of the story’s weight and balances the persistence of the story’s serial nature. Like the ability to take breaks during a read, this visual seriousness prevents the story from being read too fast to really take it in. Fordham’s anatomy is accurate, lines very precise, and there is little to no visual overstatement—sound effects are all in black, for example, suggesting they prefer to be a subconscious cue to the reader than something that signifies the presence of the artist in the craft. It feels very much like a European spy comic, and not much like most other kinds.
While some pages feature panels that helpfully flow into and past each other, subtly giving cues about which direction to read next, others feature grids which are harder to parse for those new for the form. This is not a comic that someone who “doesn’t know how to read comics” will probably find very easy, and depending on how deeply the “pirates & journalists vs corporate” premise appeals they may or may not wish to struggle through. But for a child who has the knack of reading graphic narratives it will be the kind of title that lets them feel, as all Pullman books do, that someone judged them to be old enough, or mature enough, or just reader enough to skate about in a parallel universe and understand the emotional ambiguity of people cast adrift (and washed together) by circumstance. I think John Blake’s continuing adventures must be a real boon to The Phoenix, or any comics magazine in which its chapters might appear, and though I would rather read them first in their original serial form I don’t think that their collection is one to be missed.