I received my first copy of Grimm’s fairy tales before I was old enough to read. Almost every day I leafed through the gilt-edged pages looking only at the beautiful, painted illustrations and telling stories to myself. That book began my love affair with fairy tales in all of their forms.
Because my first encounter with fairy tales was through images, it seems quite fitting that my most recent experience would be similar.
Matt Phelan’s graphic novel, Snow White, will be published by Penguin Random House on September 13, 2016. Matt Phelan is an illustrator and writer who has been nominated for two Eisner Awards and who has won the prestigious Newberry Medal and Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.
A beautiful retelling of a classic fairy tale, Matt Phelan’s Snow White is set in depression-era NYC. He remains faithful to the classic, literary versions of the tale (namely that of the Grimm Brothers) while adapting the story in a way that is moving and unique in 1920s New York.
The dialogue is sparse in this graphic novel, so much so that others have criticized it. I, however, didn’t have a problem with it. I found his use of dialogue to be precise and in keeping with fairy-tale traditions. Classic, literary fairy tales are plot-driven. There is little focus on interiority, but rather action. Similarly, Phelan drives the plot of his novel and conveys most of the action through his beautiful artwork and uses dialogue or captions only as scene openers or exposition. In these ways, Phelan stays true to fairy tale conventions. In fact, even more fitting given the time-period and setting of this adaptation, the chapter headings, dialogue, and captions read, to me, like those in a silent film.
The (mostly) black-and-white watercolor illustrations further reinforce the novel’s setting and create a moody atmosphere. This is no Disneyfied kingdom. Phelan uses color sparingly, a splash of red, for example, on the infamous apple. The effect is a hazy, dreamlike world that I didn’t want to leave. Even after I finished the book, I went back to the art.
Phelan’s interpretations of the most important elements of any Snow White adaptation are particularly creative and make sense in this noir world. For example, instead of a magic mirror, the evil stepmother (who in this version is a famous broadway star) consults a ticker tape, a device that reveals success or failure amidst the country’s largest financial crash.
Although the story is familiar enough that I’m not afraid to give away the plot, I don’t want to ruin any surprises for other readers. I will just say that I loved Phelan’s interpretations of the seven dwarves and the glass coffin. They stay true to classic fairy tale conventions and make sense in this setting. And the death of the stepmother would make the Grimm brothers proud.