Posted by Don MacPherson on April 8th, 2008
Salt Water Taffy Vol. 1 original graphic novel
“The Legend of Old Salty”
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Matthew Loux
Letters: Douglas E. Sherwood
Editor: Randal C. Jarrell
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $5.95 US
I’m a dude in his late 30s. While I’m engaged, I have no kids. I am far from the target audience for this book, which is aimed at younger readers. Nevertheless, creator Matthew Loux has crafted a charming story full of small-town magic, celebrating a simpler existence and the innocence of youth. I was quite taken with the characters, the premise and the relationships that serve as a strong foundation for the story. Loux brings the fantasy and personality of Jeff Smith’s Bone and mixes it with a light, all-American coming-of-age story. There’s an odd mix of cute and surreal elements in the story that’s heartening and surprisingly involving. Loux manages to offer a thoroughly sweet, wholesome and playful story of adventure, mystery and weirdness without crossing the line into sickeningly sweet, overly saccharine territory. Loux’s angular yet fluid style seems pretty urban in tone, but it conveys the rural, peaceful backdrop with seeming ease. This is an adorable little book, and it actually lives up to the label “all ages,” normally associated with comics that are really just for kids alone.
The Putnam brothers — Jack, 11, and Benny, 8 — find themselves in a small, coastal Maine town for the summer, and it’s something of a culture shock. While Benny takes to the simpler life quickly, Jack is devastated by the prospect of life without TV and videogames. Slowly but surely, the local color — such as the treats at the local salt-water taffy shop and the strange stories that fisherman Angus O’Neil tells about a local sea monster — begins to win the older boy over. When the taffy shop is the target of a break-in and all of the sweet candy disappears, it’s a mystery that Angus and the boys are determined to solve.
Loux’s thick-lined, swooping style strikes me as being thoroughly urban and hip in nature. The long arcs combined with sharp shifts in direction strike me as the same kind of approach one sees sometimes in graffiti artwork. Mind you, this is a small-town Canada guy talking, so I guess it’s in keeping with my mind’s-eye image of big-city street art. In any case, that approach brings a lot of energy to the story, but at the same time, the simpler tone of the story and backdrop aren’t sacrificed. The mysterious investigator who turns up in the latter part of the book boasts a sharp, striking look as well, and juxtaposing his dark, intense and creepy look with the goofy revelation of what lies behind the hat and trenchcoat makes for a thoroughly odd but entertaining moment in the story.
One of the elements that won me over quickly was how Loux tempers a healthy rivalry between the two young brothers with a clear friendship and love for one another. Jack initially has an attitude problem, but the longer he spends in Chowder Bay, the nicer he becomes. The dynamics among the Putnam family are wholesome to the point of disbelief, but neither are they so old-fashioned and stilted so as to mistake them for TV’s Cleaver clan. There’s something heartening about the thoroughly functional and caring nature of the family unit.
Angus is a delightful character as well because he’s just as adventurous and imaginative as the children. He’s something of an innocent as well. The only difference between him and the kids is that his fantastic stories are true. The contrast of his child-like curiosity and delight with the uber-tough, manly strength he exhibits at any given moment makes for an odd yet compelling character. The plotting isn’t exactly challenging; it’s basic and accessible to quite young readers. But the magic and personality in the script are undeniably cute and touching, drawing readers who might normally seek more complex or even darker storytelling.
One of the best selling points (literally) of this 96-page book is the price point. Just shy of six bucks is a great price for a graphic novel, or even a graphic novella, depending on your assessment of the format. That should make Salt Water Taffy an easy pitch for retailers. Assuming solid sales on that basis alone, I just hope Loux is able to keep up the potential momentum by following up with a second volume in short order. 7/10