I think I finally have to admit to myself that I love, love, love graphic novels. Despite my early skepticism and wariness over this new genre in the kid's book section a few years back, I am now an avid consumer. I know this because I find myself drawn to and reveling in stories that I am sure I would not gravitate to had they been published the in traditional novel format. Michael Rex's series Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian happens to be one of these graphic novels and a new passion of mine. I read it the minute it hit the shelves and knew that I could justify buying it because my first grader would probably read it. Because he's my last young reader and because the many bookshelves in my house are groaning and because college tuition is and will be part of my life for the next seven or so years, I have tried to curtail my book buying habits of old. But man, I had to own these books. There is just something fascinating and funny about Fangbone and I never get tired of typing or saying his name. That he takes himself and his mission so seriously is part of his appeal. That he understands and appreciates honor and loyalty and is (if grudgingly) willing to acknowledge it is also appealing. And then you have the fact that Michael Rex just has such a funny, fantastic sense of humor and a phenomenal imagination. Rex is (until now) best known for his cleverly written, hilariously illustrated picture book parodies, Goodnight Goon, Runaway Mummy, and the superb Furious George Goes Bananas. Story time favorites and Halloween staples, if you know any of these picture books then you will have a good idea of just how great Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian is.
The epic of Fangbone begins, "In a world of swords, magic, barbarians and evil big toes..." Fangbone, despite his best efforts and wishes, is not much more than a servant boy to the marauding warriors. "Fangbone! Sharpen my sword," "Fangbone! Fix my shield!" and "Fangbone! Pick the spider eggs out of my armpit!" can be heard echoing throughout the camp in Skulbania. As the army of Drool, the evil warrior who has been ripped to pieces and must be stopped from reconfiguring himself, approaches, a messenger stumbles into the camp. He comes bearing the big toe of Drool with instructions for a warrior to take it to the Sorcerer at Ribcage Rock who will then transport the warrior to another safer dimension. Of course, none of the warriors want to leave the battle but Fangbone pushes his way forward, past Grimeblade, Gizzardfoot and Axebear, to offer his services. He takes the pouch with the big toe, hightails it to Ribcage Rock and presents himself to the disgruntled Sorcerer. After a bit of grousing and some magic incantations ("Zorko, Gorko, Dorko, Doo!") Fangbone is hurtled through time and space and ends up in our world in the town dump giving what-for to a rusty truck.
Fortunately for Fangbone, the dump is near an elementary school and Fangbone observes all the children "going into that castle." One of the greatest (and best written bits of this series - really, in another's hands it could have been overdone or badly done) aspects of Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian is his constant, hilarious misinterpretation of what he is seeing in this strange world as well as the inhabitants of our world and their inherent belief that this time traveling, well armed youngster is a harmless kid playing dress-up. Bill, Fangbone's buddy from earth, thinks his helmet is for skateboarding. Fangbone tells him it is for war. Fangbone also has the opportunity to tell the class some of the history of his world and the reasons for quest that he on. After learning that he cannot read or write, Ms Gillian, the third grade teacher whispers to him, "Ok... Ok... You're in the right class. Welcome to 3G. Everyone here learns at their own speed." Adults readers will have one take on this (especially combined with the fact that the 3G beanball team, the Extreme Attack Unicorns, always loses the monthly game to the Bean Ball Monsters) and young readers another, and that's another thing to love. There is also a laugh-out-loud scene where Bill shows Fangbone how to use the bathroom. After seeing the toilet flush and learning that it causes the "junk" to get sucked away, Fangbone exclaims, "By the Gods of Skullbania! This is sorcery!" Bill replies, "Nope. It's plumbing." Bill helps Fangbone to find a cave to live in, but Bill's mother takes a liking to Fangbone and he is a welcome guest at their house which makes for even more jokes.
Meanwhile, in Fangbone's world, the minions of Drool are assembling and coming for Fangbone and the big toe. Rex does a great job telling the story of Skullbania and these parts of the book are almost as compelling as reading about Fangbone's assimilation into our world. Dirt Devils, a wolf-headed snake who is defeated by a bucket of atomic hot wings and the school bully threaten everyone's happiness in Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian. Convinced his singular goal is to protect the big toe of Drool, Fangbone disappoints Bill and his classmates by refusing to participate in the monthly beanball competition. But, at the last minute he has a change of heart when he realizes that Bill has been his friend and fellow warrior in battle and Fangbone joins the game. Not only do the Extreme Attack Unicorns win, but Fangbone wins over the team and the army that he always longed for begins to take shape. Bill earns the moniker Bill the Beast. I love this image of the gang from 3G taking their battle stances.
Book 2, The Egg of Misery, is even better than book 1, if that's possible. For one thing, the action heats up and we learn more about Skullbania and Drool's unfortunate childhood. Bill and Fangbone have a fantastic battle (and some really great lobster jokes) in the grocery store when the Flaming Ghost of Glor comes for them. Dung Trolls chase the boys down the hallways of the school and Bill is almost doomed to a hideous fate when he touches one. However, the presence of hand sanitizer in his pocket saves Bill from pus-filled boils, black eyes, a hairy tongue, a snake nose, and a maggot covered body when he cleans his hands, something that apparently is not done in Skullbania. The fact that the gang from 3G is in on Fangbone's secret also makes for more jokes, fun and action. 3G is given the dodo as their animal for the grade-wide extinct animal pageant at the same time that a dragon egg from Skullbania appears in Fangbone's cave. Bill and Fangbone try to keep it hidden while waiting for it to hatch, but the gang finds out. Everyone is in on the excitement, planning all the great things they will do (great illustrated dream sequence here) when the White Titan Razor Dragon hatches while at the same time neglecting their pageant duties. Fortunately, their poor workmanship on the dodo model is saved by the unfortunate fact that the egg was sent by Drool's minions and, instead of being a dragon egg it hatches Feathered Skeeve that looks like an evil dodo, which is actually both cool and hideous. Rex deserves major kudos for turning this tepid, much maligned poster child for extinction into a giant sloth eating beast. Cool aside, the supposedly remote-controlled giant sloth that the Feathered Skeeve attacks is actually Duncan, the Bully in a costume for his extinct animal skit. Fangbone, familiar with the giant sloth, tells Duncan and his gang that they got the hands on their model wrong and that, rather than fighting, the giant sloth "is gentle and kind and chants hauntingly in the moonlight." The final image from this book is one of my favorites, and I especially love that Rex includes a drawing of a real dodo and the three-legged dodo that 3G built for their skit.
One thing that is brilliantly evident after reading the first two books in this series is that Michael Rex has a vivid imagination, a bottomless sense of humor and a genuine understanding of his young audience. As Betsy Bird says in her review of Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian, "Long live incredibly amusing graphic novel sagas! Long live Fangbone!" Hear! Hear!
Fangbone 3, The Birthday Party of Dread,
comes out August 2nd!
One final thing... I found these fantastic images on Michael Rex's blog. In a parody of a parody, if that's possible, Rex has mimicked (sort of) the format Despair, the original inventor of demotivational posters, one of the greatest parodies out there.