The graphic novel adaption of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel The Graveyard Book wastes no time in getting down to business. The first page consists of a single frame, portraying a bloody knife held by a gloved hand against a dark sky, with the words “The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately. The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.”
The knife belongs to a man named Jack, who has just murdered three people in their sleep. Why? We won’t learn for many pages. What we do learn is that Jack intends one more victim that night, a child. This child is fortunate, however, in that his penchant for wandering saves him, as he toddles straight into a graveyard where he is protected from Jack by its ghostly inhabitants. Alerted by the spirit of the child’s recently deceased mother, they not only take in the child, but also turn away Jack, in the process erasing his memory of tracking the child to the graveyard.
The child is adopted by the kindly Mrs. Owens, given the name of Nobody (“Bod” for short), and granted the freedom of the graveyard. The various spirits of the dead who reside there contribute to his upbringing, providing food and education and allowing him to grow up with the support of an entire village, even if all members of that village are deceased. Over the course of eight episodic chapters, collected in two hardcover volumes, we see Bod grow from a toddler to a young man, making The Graveyard Book a Bildungsroman that combines a keen understanding of the universal experiences of growing up with great exploitation of fantasy and horror conventions.
Like any child, Bod explores his world with curiosity, learning about himself and acquiring skills he will use in his adult life. His adventures sometimes go awry, but his supportive graveyard family is there to bail him out when necessary. He is tutored by the graveyard inhabitants, learning not only ordinary human academic subjects, like geography and grammar, but also useful skills (like becoming invisible) that are not usually included in a primary school curriculum. Despite some rough encounters with the world of “normal” people outside the graveyard, Bod does not reject it entirely, and befriends a young girl from that world who helps him investigate the mystery of the man named Jack, and what he wants.
In its broadest outline, the story of The Graveyard Book could be thought of as Cabal in reverse. In Clive Barker’s novel, adapted in 1990 as the movie Nightbreed, a young man raised among “normal” people finds his place in a tribe of outcasts and monsters (as defined by the normals). In The Graveyard Book, an ordinary boy is raised among the “monsters” of the graveyard, who prepare him to function in the world he was born to.
Common to both novels is the demonstration that conventional distinctions between the normal and the abnormal (or monstrous) are overly simplistic, as real monsters reside in the so-called normal world, while those labeled as monstrous can, in fact, provide an accepting and nurturing environment. The other commonality in both books is the theme of finding your tribe, which has fairly universal appeal as well as particular relevance in modern societies, where identity is not bestowed at birth but must be created and won by each individual.
It would be hard to think of a more distinguished pairing, in the world of graphic novels, than that of Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell. Gaiman is the creator of The Sandman, Coraline, and American Gods, among other things, and is the recipient of multiple Eisner, Hugo, and Nebula Awards. Russell has worked on everything from mainstream comics series to graphic adaptations of operas and Oscar Wilde fairy tales, and also has a groaning trophy shelf, including multiple Eisner Awards. Gaiman and Russell have worked together successfully before, including on the graphic novel of Coraline and issues of The Sandman.
As a novel, The Graveyard Book won a number of prestigious awards including the Newbery Medal, the British Carnegie Medal, and a Hugo Award. Everything good about the novel is preserved in the graphic novel adaption, which adds the benefit of visual interpretation by a number of fine artists. Besides Russell, artists who contributed to this collection include Kevin Nowlan, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, and David Lafuente, with color by Lovern Kindzierski and lettering by Rick Parker. Each brings something unique to the adaptations, but their styles are similar enough that the collection still feels like a unified whole.
The Graveyard Book is officially recommended (by the publisher) for ages 8-12. Certainly kids of that age will enjoy it, combining as it does the story of a boy overcoming challenges not unlike their own with finely calibrated fantastic elements that are deliciously scary without ever threatening the reader’s core sense of safety. But adults will enjoy it too, because it presents the perfect opportunity to remember what it was like when you were young and learning about the world, with the bonus of providing a few pleasurable shivers along the way.