Particular Frame of Time: Return of the Dapper Men

[19 January 2011]

By James Orbesen

Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s original graphic novel Return of the Dapper Men is one of 2010’s most imaginative stories. Published by Archaia, the book presents itself in a very fairytale manner, complete with a handy “from the library of” spot for a child to sign his or her name, but is also thoroughly abundant with adult themes and undertones.  It’s taken a bit of time for this review to crop up. The title is more than several months old now. Hardly breaking news. However, it does seem fitting to reference time given the nature of the story.

Return of the Dapper Men centers on the land of Anorev. This thinly veiled Romeo and Juliet homage is populated by hordes of children and robotic counterparts who are stuck in one particular moment in time. The entire progress from second to minute to hour has ceased in Anorev. The sun never sets. Children never need to sleep. Robots continue working ad infinitum. Life continues in this manner until everyone has forgotten how exactly the world was before time stopped except for a pair of star crossed lovers, a boy, Ayden, and a girl, Zoe, who have lingering recollections of a time when grass grew and eggs hatched. Nevertheless, this stagnant setup is challenged by the sudden arrival of 314 dapper looking gentlemen from the sky who are determined to put things right.

Before diving into the nitty gritty of the text itself, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the contributions of artist Janet Lee. She brings to the table an outside sensibility that is far from most comic book artists. Her work is in a league of its own when held alongside other graphic novels with a dreamy, Grimm’s Fairy Tale quality to it. The closest approximation to her style is the whimsical pencils of Skottie Young. Regardless, Lee represents a fresh breath of air into the medium that quickly differentiates itself from the steroid infused, twelve pack adorned, superhero comics and the cartoony realism of alternative works from Chris Ware or Los Bros Hernandez.

With due recognition given, lets continue.

Time, as mentioned before, is central to the story. But time has always been fuzzy with graphic novels. The medium itself can manipulate time at will. Consider the basic structure of a comic book page. While full spreads and splash pages can sometimes take up space, comic pages are constructed around a series of panels. Artists can manipulate these boxes and produce imaginative methods of construction, such as J.H. Williams III, but by and large a comic book story is told through the use of sequential boxes that contain either pictures, words or both.

Moving from one panel to the next indicates a passage of time. However, one of the neat attributes of sequential storytelling is that this passage of time is ambiguous. It could be ten seconds or it could be ten years that pass. It is up to the reader, with hints given by the writer and artist, to infer how much time has passed. Panel A may show a character getting punched while the following Panel B may show that character taking revenge and hitting back. What happened in the interim? Who knows? Maybe the hitting continued back and forth, full of blocks and counters and laser eyes. Perhaps they both took a break to sip some tea and then carry on. The point is that the little white border between panels can represent anything. That’s the fun of comics. Anything is possible.

Comic creators need readers to be actively participating when consuming their output. Novels and films differ from comics, where each moment is separated into individual panels. The consumer is not required to fill the gaps in these other mediums. Return of the Dapper Men not only draws attention to how comics can manipulate time but how comics first took root.

Comicbooks, at least for me, are inextricably linked to childhood. The entire concept of the comicbook began with kids and flourished through the continual readership of children. If depression era youth and 1960s preteens hadn’t flocked to the art form then comic books would be in a far different place than they are today. Perhaps that could be a good thing. No one can say for sure. But comics and graphic novels, as they are today, owe a great deal of gratitude to children. Still, as in Return of the Dapper Men, kids grow up. But the stories they learned will always be with them. This is why the relationship between comic books and time is so special.

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