Nobody can drench a book in creepy, dank atmosphere like Neil Gaiman -- and it doesn't matter if it's a kid's book.
And while some books are drained of their magic and mystery by being turned into graphic novels, "Coraline: The Graphic Novel" doesn't suffer from that problem. It's a haunting little dark fairy tale full of decayed apartments, dancing rats and eerie soulless doppelgangers, and P. Craig Russell graces Gaiman's story with lifelike, eerie illustrations.
Newly moved into an aged apartment, Coraline (not "Caroline" is bored. Her parents are too busy to do anything with her, and her neighbors are either insane or boring.
It's the sort of relentlessly dull world that any little girl would want to escape from -- until Coraline does. She encounters a formerly bricked-up door that leads into an apartment in another world, which looks eerily like her own. In fact, it's so similar that she has a taloned, button-eyed "other mother" and matching "other father," as well as a chorus of singing, dancing rats and magical toys.
At first Coraline is fascinated by the other world, especially since her other parents are very attentive. Then she finds her real parents sealed inside a mirror. With the help of a sarcastic cat, Coraline ventures back into the other world. But with her parents and a trio of dead children held hostage, Coraline's only hope is to gamble with her own freedom -- and she'll be trapped forever if she fails.
Neil Gaiman's writing is some of the most vivid and evocative that you'll find in literature, full of nightmarish details and creepy characters. And he infuses this story with a dark fairy-tale vibe -- decayed apartments, dead children in a mirror, beetles, disembodied hands, monsters that cling to the wall with souls in their grip, and rats that sing about how "we were here before you rose, we will be here when you fall."
And frankly this graphic novel could have been capital-R RUINED if it had been given "cartoony" artwork, or if it had been sped up or excluded too much of Gaiman's. Fortunately P. Craig Russell doesn't do anything of the sort -- the story unfolds slowly but carefully, and he doesn't cut much out from Gaiman's original novel. And he includes just the right amount of eerie narrative ("her other mother' hand scuttled off Coraline's shoulder like a frightened spider"). Normally it bothers me when a graphic novel describes what is happening in the panels, but somehow it didn't here because of the atmosphere it creates.
And Russell's art is brilliantly suited to Gaiman's works, with a very realistic style, detailed expressions and an eye for the subtle stuff. His "other mother" is especially good -- she has a long pasty face with big teeth, with bony taloned fingers and freaky doll-like posture. She looks like a warped version of Coraline's real mom, just as she should.
And he brings to life the decayed eerieness of the old apartments, the glitzy stage, and the weird singing rats -- as well as the more colorful if mundane world that Coraline belongs to. As Coraline's journey becomes more horrific, he adds more grey tones, shadows and surreal details to the story, such as her creepy final encounter with her disintegrating other father. But there are also some haunting, lovely visuals, such as the full-page image of a rose-lined Victorian house.
"Coraline: The Graphic Novel" brings Neil Gaiman's story to life in beautiful, horrific detail, and even weaves some of his prose into the narrative. Nice work, Misters Gaiman and Russell.