By Nicole Hoang & Dustin Nguyen
On Wednesday, BOOM!’s young readers’ imprint kaboom! ventured into new territory with the release of their first storybook, What Is It? Nicole Hoang originally wrote the story in grade school; years later Dustin Nguyen would illustrate it and present it to Hoang as a present for their wedding. Its evolution could have ended there, except, encouraged by others, the couple decided to share the results with a wider audience. Thus, kaboom! released What Is It? a charming, lovely picture book which can entertain adults and children alike.
The story is narrated in the first person by a nameless young girl. She has been perplexed by her recent encounter with a large furry creature. The creature has no name and does not resemble any particular beast real or legendary. Instead, it appears to consist of fragments of other animals. “The thing growled and went BOW-WOW/And had a strange face that looked like a cow.” At the same time, its huge ears are compared to shells. These descriptions are well expressed by Nguyen. The artist renders a creature who, while possessing familiar elements, remains quite distinctive. One striking detail is the mismatched size of his pupils. His huge pig like snout is comical, except for tusks curving along the front of it. This contradiction between menace and ridiculous is at the heart of Hoang’s story.
The young girl is not simply confused by the creature’s appearance, but by its behavior as well. The creature bites her bottom and stomps to pieces her treasured locket. The girl becomes more and more gripped with fear as the tale progresses. Are the creature’s actions misunderstood? Hoang never answers that question. What she does do, however, is offer a vivid example of how even the most fearsome of monsters can fall victim to their own crippling phobias. Also, laughter can sometimes be the most effective form of disarming a threat. Together these two points offer a subtle resonance to Hoang’s tale.
Hoang tells her story through the use of rhyming couplets which add to the charm of the writing. They emphasize the fairytale like quality of narrative, despite the fact that the protagonist is clearly in contemporary dress. Again Nguyen does a superb job of translating Hoang’s ideas into images. The environment of the story is sparse, consisting primarily of trees and wild, bushy grass. He covers these elements with the reddish orange hues of autumn. The setting does not evoke any specific time and place, reinforcing the feel of a fable. Nguyen’s art has a lushness to it which he expertly blends with the more adorable aspects of the narrative. Nguyen has long been a talented artist who in the past year and a half has achieved a new level in his craft. His current creator-owned series Descender, for which he just won an Eisner, represents the strongest work of his career to date. What Is It? fits that pattern with pages of striking watercolors.
Kaboom! has long held a reputation for quality children’s/young adult comics. Hoang and Nguyen’s What Is It? continues that tradition with an endearing storybook, which should please readers of all ages.