Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Hansel & Gretel, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Lorenzo Mattiotti is the newest release from TOON Graphics, a line of graphic novels for kids reading at 3rd grade level and above, launched by the superb François Mouly and the fantastic people at TOON Books. What Gaiman and Mattotti do with a very familiar fairy tale in their rendition is amazing, both for the spare starkness of the text and illustrations and the powerful darkness that enfolds the story. Mattiotti's illustrations are all two page spreads and were inspired by the Metropolitan Opera's production of Humperdink's Hansel and Gretel. The thick, darkly dense images, which are actually done with an ink that contains five different colors, are full of movement and foreboding and perfectly suited to Gaiman's text. and  Gaiman begins this story with the words that show why he is a master story teller, gifted at establishing suspense and anticipation with a matter of sentences, "This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother's time, or in her grandfather's. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest."

Gaiman brings a larger sense of humanity to his retelling, beginning the story with descriptions of the woodcutter and his family in times of prosperity. And, while times are good, Gaiman makes note of that which is easy to overlook. He writes, "And if their mother was sometimes bitter and sharp-tongued, and if their father was sometimes sullen and eager to be away from their little home, why, Gretel and Hansel thought nothing of it, as long as they could play in the forest and climb trees and ford rivers; as long as there was freshly baked bread and eggs and cooked cabbage on their table." 

These contented times come to an end when war, with its soldiers who are "hungry, angry, bored, scared men," and ensuing famine arrive. The fairy tale plays out in the familiar way, with the children's mother trying to convince the father that they should abandon the children in the woods, ("Lose them, not kill them," she clarifies) and with somewhat sound reason. After all, if the woodcutter is too weak from hunger to cut wood, all their chances are doomed. Why not better the odds by going from four mouths to feed to two?

And, while I am sure that children for centuries have loved the witch getting pushed into the oven by Gretel, the witch's gingerbread house is without a doubt the true draw for this story. I know that every time I encounter a new (to me) version of Hansel and Gretel I flip to the center of the book to see just how glorious (or disappointing) the gingerbread house is. However, hunger and starvation and triumph and salvation are the clear, true themes of Gaiman's retelling and he does a fine job of moving quickly past the pancake shingles and spun sugar windowpanes to the heart of this fairy tale and, eventually, the joyous ending. In this version of Hansel & Gretel, not only do the children return home with bags of treasure to find their grateful father waiting to embrace them, Gaiman provides readers a glimpse into the futures of the siblings in which they marry, and marry well. Their is so much good food at their weddings that "belts burst and the fat from the meat ran down" chins while the "pale moon looked down kindly on them all."

As with all TOON Graphics, their is historical and contextual content at the end. For Hansel & Gretel, the origins of the tale - I had no idea that the decision of the Grimm brothers to collect local fairy tales was a way to defy the cultural domination of Napoleon and his army after they invaded their small German kingdom. The changing face of the mother in the fairy tale is also addressed and a brief but excellent bibliography will hopefully inspire more readings of these tales in their truest forms.

Source: Review Copy

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