Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Improving on 'The Iron Man'?

"The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.
How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows.
Taller than a house, the Iron Man stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness.

So begins one of the great modern fairy stories; or is it science fiction? No matter, 'The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights' is a wonderful work of fiction for readers aged 6-10 years and has thrilled readers since it was published by Faber in 1968. It is a modern classic which in its 1st edition used the wonderfully simply line drawings of George Adamson. Illustrations stripped bare, as 'miserly' as the text, giving just enough to inflame the curiosity and imagination of readers. Illustrations as intriguing as the words and complementing the masterful text. 

Surely, such a work cannot be improved on? Surely, it would be foolish even to try? Warner Brothers tried with an animated film titled 'The Iron Giant' (1999) and it was (in my view) an abomination, in light of the quality of the book. But.... it seems there was a way to improve on the classic work. Laura Carlin is the secret weapon, surprising this reader, with the same killer blows as the Iron Man dealt to the Space-bat-angel-dragon. In her own way, Carlin improves on Adamson's contribution as illustrator in the original edition.

Here is an illustrated junior novel turned into a graphic novel with wonderful success. I have seen the odd review (odd in number, and odd in nature), that have spoken of the 'simplicity of the drawings', 'the child-like figures', the 'imprecise details' etc. Theses comments show neither understanding nor appreciation of the genius of the text. Hughes offers a text with simplicity of vocabulary and sentence structure that helps to create the mood, the intrigue and 'space' for young minds to imagine. This is precise descriptive language that allows the reader to see with equal preciseness, the path of the characters, the events and even the plot. Carlin wonderfully partners Ted Hughes in this new edition from Walker Books (even though he's been dead since 1998).

I applaud Walker Books for its work in recent years producing new editions of classic works. Many publishers attempt to do the same thing. Old books can be reprinted and good profit made for low cost. But Walker has been trying to offer something new and significant in each of its attempts.  I have reviewed the Classic Series that Robert Ingpen has illustrated (here) which in their own way add value for new readers to well-known works. The purpose of course, in new editions, is to introduce such works to a new generation. This new edition of 'The Iron Man' will do just that. Can you improve on 'The Iron Man'? I think Walker have succeeded in this new format. The production and the illustrations are superb.

Laura Carlin's illustrations are in rich watercolours that offer a somewhat impressionistic interpretation of Ted Hughes's text, mostly in full-colour, with occasional two-colour stylised images across part and whole pages for dramatic effect. A simple example is an image of the two red eyes of the Iron Man shining in the deep black pit where he is trapped. The images are well integrated with the text, sometimes appearing as almost marginal sketches and, at other times, detailed double-page spreads. The publishers also make good use of other devices such as varied text fonts and styles, paper sculpture holes to slowly reveal the space-bat-angel-dragon, and they use multiple page fold-outs in places, including a dramatic 6 page spread that folds out to the reveal story's conclusion. The sensitivity with which Carlin interprets the text and the clever book design, offers a wonderful example of a graphic novel that improves the reader's experience of the original work. It is brilliant stuff!

Plot summary

The Iron Man describes the unexpected arrival in England of a mysterious giant "metal man" who wreaks havoc on the countryside by attacking the neighbouring farms and eating all their machinery. A young boy called Hogarth befriends him and he and the extraordinary being end up defending and saving the earth when it is attacked by a fearsome "space-bat-angel-dragon" from outer space.

The book was written at a high point of the Cold War and it would seem that the intent of the author was to place a spotlight on the futility of war, violence, and the arms race.  Many see the space-bat-angel-dragon as an idealized version of the Soviet Union offering a threat because of the hostility of nations toward one another. It offers a message of hope and peace. A solution to the problems of the world devised by a child who showed compassion and empathy, and was prepared to talk to the 'enemy'.

About the Author

Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire in 1930. His first book, 'The Hawk in the Rain', was published by Faber in 1957, and was followed by many volumes of poetry and prose for both children and adults, including 'How The Whale Became', 'Under the North Star', 'Tales from Ovid' and 'Birthday Letters'. He was Poet Laureate from 1984 and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1998, the year in which he died. There has been much written about him and his ill-fated marriage to American Poet Sylvia Plath who died by suicide aged 30 in 1963. But he should be remembered first as a great poet and writer for adults and children.

About the illustrator

Laura Carlin is a graduate of the Royal College of Art and the winner of several awards including the Shelia Robinson Drawing Prize, the Quentin Blake Award and the 2004 National Magazine Award. Laura's work as a ceramic artist and illustrator has featured in publications such as Vogue, the Guardian, and the Independent. Books she has illustrated include 'The Silver Donkey' by Sonya Hartnett and Michael Morpurgo's 'The Kites are Flying!'.

Book details

Title: 'The Iron Man' Ted Hughes, illustrated by Laura Carlin
ISBN: 9781406324679
Imprint: Walker Books
Release Date: November 1, 2010
Dimensions: 200 x 270mm, 96pp
Australian RRP: $34.95

Related posts

Author Focus: Robert Ingpen (HERE)
Aussie Book Reviews: Graphic Novels (HERE)

Books for children by Ted Hughes

'The Earth Owl and Other Moon People' (1960)
'Meet my Folks!' (1961)
'How the Whale Became' (1963)
'Nessie the Mannerless Monster' (1964)
'The Iron Man' (1968) Illustrated by George Adamson
'Coming of the Kings and Other Plays' (1970)
'Season Songs' (1976) Illustrated by Leonard Baskin
'Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems' (1976) Illustrated by Leonard
'Moon-Bells and Other Poems' (1978) Illustrated by Felicity Roma
'Under the North Star' Illustrated by Leonard Baskin (1981)
'Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth' (1986) Illustrated by Chris
'The Cat and the Cuckoo' (1987) Illustrated by R. J. Lloyd
'Tales of the Early World' (1988) Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
'The Iron Woman' Illustrated Douglas Carrell (1993)
'The Mermaid's Purse' (1993) Illustrated by R.J. Lloyd
'Collected Animal Poems: Vols. 1–4' (1995)


Cathy said...

Hi Trevor,
After reading your post a while back, I ordered the new edition of "The Iron Man" for our 6 yr old, for Christmas.

Steve read it with him yesterday afternoon. They both loved it. It was an excellent afternoon. I missed it, because I was off reading with the 2 year old, while my mum was reading to the four year old. The baby was asleep:).

Thanks for the recommendations - we're using them!!

Trevor Cairney said...

So glad they liked it Cathy, it's a favourite of mine. I can't recall reading it to a child who didn't like it.