By Marty Mulrooney
Cardboard is the latest graphic novel from legendary video game designer (Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood) and graphic novelist (Creature Tech, Power Up) Doug TenNapel. Published by Graphix, a division of Scholastic Inc., Cardboard tells the story of a young boy named Cam and his down-and-out father Mike, who come into possession of some very powerful cardboard that could be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands…
Cardboard is as beautifully told as it is drawn. Mike is a single parent who desperately misses his dead wife. Down on his luck and with barely a penny to his name due to the poor state of the economy (Mike’s a builder by trade), he can’t even afford to get his son a decent birthday present. When he comes across a toy stall ran by a gentleman named Old Man Gideon, Mike doesn’t get his hopes up. What could he possibly afford?
Mike only has seventy-eight cents in his pocket – which just so happens to be the price of an empty cardboard box Mr Gideon is selling. However, there are rules. There are always rules with these kinds of things! Mike can make whatever he wants (a submarine, a monster, a train!) but all unused scraps must be returned and he can’t ask for more cardboard. It all sounds very Gremlins and, just like in that film, the rules are inevitably going to be broken.
Mike returns home to give his son Cam his birthday present. Cam doesn’t complain about the basic gift (despite the cruel teasing of his neighbour, a boy named Marcus) – he knows his dad is making the best out of a bad situation. The pair decide to create a boxer called Bill. They burn the midnight oil and work throughout the night. Paint, glue and most importantly, cardboard, come together to create an impressive looking, life-size model boxer. Then Bill the cardboard boxer comes to life.
That’s the premise – but the real enjoyment comes from finding out what happens next. Doug TenNapel is by now a dab hand at combining high-concept ideas with much smaller (yet equally enjoyable) stories of humanity and hope. Mike needs to come to terms with his wife’s death and move on – his beautiful next-door neighbour Tina would be perfect for him. The neighbourhood jerk Marcus is presented as a repulsive bully, but he’s actually just lonely and misunderstood. Refreshingly, Cam needs the least – his father is enough. However, a few new friends certainly wouldn’t go amiss…
Ultimately, Cardboad is about creation and how the end result ultimately depends on the creator. Without spoiling too much, Bill the boxer is just the beginning. Doug TenNapel is unquestionably one of the greatest graphic novelists working today. This is a medium that encourages imagination and creation and Cardboard embodies those values, balancing storytelling with pure creation. As always with Mr TenNapel’s work there are religious undertones – but this is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of faith (or lack thereof). The origin of the cardboard is playfully blamed on both aliens and a magic wizard before religion is even brought up.
The move from black-and-white to colour has been kind to Doug TenNapel (Cardboard was drawn digitally and then coloured by Der-Shing Helmber) – this is truly a visual feast, with striking images leaping from every page. The story is slightly predictable but when your main complaint is a compact, happy ending, you know you’re grasping at straws. Cardboard is a graphic novel not to be missed, from a graphic novelist at the height of his game. A story about life that’s simply bursting with it.
9 OUT OF 10