A pacifier and a knife: These two images open The Graveyard Book, P. Craig Russell's graphic adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2009 novel. They're oddly complementary devices, the tool of infancy and the weapon of grownups, expressing the quixotic innocence of a kids' book (well, young-adult book) set in a place of death.
The knife belongs to a man called Jack, and the pacifier to the toddler Jack's come to kill. But the toddler finds his way out of the house where the rest of his family lie murdered. He ambles up the street to an old graveyard, and there, the spectral occupants pledge to protect him. For a mother and father he'll have two 200-year-old ghosts, the Owens. For a guard and guide he'll have Silas, a (probable) vampire. For a name, he'll have "Nobody" ("Bod" for short) because, says Mrs. Owens, "He looks like nobody but himself."
And so Bod proceeds through childhood. He eats the food Silas brings him, learns from ghostly teachers and enjoys all sorts of adventures denied to boys in the living world. Always, though, there's a shadowy question hovering: Who was Jack, and why did he kill Bod's parents? The answers must wait until the next installation, due out in September. (Or you can just check out the original novel, a unique feast.)
Russell has gathered six artists to help him illustrate the book, and like a procession of Magi, they each bring their different gifts to Bod.
With his knack for faces, Kevin Nowlan gives the toddler a personality vivid beyond his years. Little Bod may not know how to speak, but he can glower with the best of them. Nowlan also envisions Bod's recently deceased mother with awesome brio. She drifts electrically at the edge of the otherworld, wailing imprecations.
Like Nowlan, Galen Showman is a great face guy. In "The Witch's Headstone" he enlivens the irresistible Liza Hempstock, a wily young witch who died in the 1600s. In "Danse Macabre," Jill Thompson's energetic lines give life and momentum to a centuries-old ritual in which the townspeople dance with the dead. Ruby musical notes swirl.
Teaming up on "The Hounds of God," Tony Harris and Scott Hampton offer ebulliently dissonant takes. Harris' heavy, Gothic lines turn Bod into a cranky Botticelli cherub and his teacher, Miss Lupescu, into the kind of musty maiden aunt whom kids are instinctively repelled by. Then, as Bod struggles with her irrelevant-seeming lessons and awful food ("hard-boiled eggs in a gray liquid") he is suddenly plunged into another world, the world of the ghouls — and thus delivered into the hands of Hampton.
Hampton's section stands out not only because it's so different from the others in style, but because it's so modern. It's the one occasion when the overall uniformity of the book is shaken up — and in so many ways! Hampton likes to use shading rather than lines to delineate shapes, which allows his snaggle-toothed ghouls to romp and tumble with a freedom none of the other characters enjoy. He's got a way with a toothy grin, whether it belongs to a ghoul or a three-eyed night-gaunt. One of the ghouls is a dead ringer for the Yellow Kid.
The ghouls' home world has its own distinct colors: seething maroon and orange (plus a "mold-colored moon") instead of the samey palette of cool tones that predominates elsewhere. Hampton even plays around with the arrangement of his panels and, as if that isn't enough, brings a photo into the mix.
Then there's Russell's own section, "The New Friend." Next to Hampton, Russell is like a stately professor emeritus. His lines are precise, his compositions unfailingly elegant. He draws trees, headstones and monuments with equal reverence and regularity; the overall effect is like gazing upon a sun-dappled temple. That, or a Victorian children's book — he's got kids' physicality down. Russell doesn't quite achieve the level of his last collaboration with Gaiman, the incredible The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, but the delights here are many.
It would be easy to skip over the most unobtrusive of the contributors, letterer Rick Parker, but that would be a shame. The flowing, floating text he uses for mystical voices and spells is a surprise treat. A graveyard offers many aesthetic pleasures; he captures the most ephemeral of them.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.