Jellaby Vol. 1

By Kean Soo
160 pages, color
Published by Hyperion

In what seems to be a trend these days, Jellaby was a web comic that I absolutely loved, only to have it go on hiatus because of a print edition being announced by a major publisher. When Kean Soo announced the change in status for Jellaby back in early 2006, I hadn’t counted on needing to wait almost two years to see the end result. The one bright side, though? Having read the first 60 odd pages already, I knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Portia is a girl that is perhaps too smart for her own good. Her classmates at best ignore her, at worst pick on her. She doesn’t really have any friends. So every day she goes home to her mother, and lives a quiet and lonely life. Then a strange dream wakes her up in the middle of the night, and that’s when she discovers a dragon-like creature with tiny little wings, alone and abandoned in the middle of the forest. She can’t just leave him out there, scared and confused. And that’s when things in Portia’s life really start moving.

Jellaby is the sort of book that it’s really hard not to like. (Seriously, I think you’d genuinely have to try to dislike it.) Soo’s character of Portia hits all of the right buttons for me—she’s smart and strong-willed, but at the same time she’s not perfect. In some ways she’s as tough as a grown-up, but at heart she’s still a kid, with all the mistakes and troubles that entails. It sounds silly, but I really liked the fact that even though she’s a person who clearly is smarter than most of her classmates, their respect or even attention still means a lot to her; the scene where she brings in her toy pony and wants to play with the other girls speaks volumes about Portia’s character, and makes her that much more realistic. Likewise, her classmate Jason’s refusal to give his lunchbox up to the bullies, even though he knows what will happen, is one of those great moments where you see just how determined and persistent a 10-year-old can be. Add in the quiet innocence—but backed with a knowledge of what is right and wrong—from Jellaby and you end up with a trio of characters that can easily carry the book.

The plot itself is good, too. Soo sets up several mysteries for the reader, from Jellaby’s strange appearance, to the curious purple door in the newspaper, the fate of Portia’s father, and the strange man that’s stalking Jellaby and Portia. There’s plenty of action, and Soo lets it slowly escalate throughout the book, starting with a schoolyard fight and graduating with a chase through a moving train. It grabs the attention easily, and at the end of the first volume it’s hard to not want to start whimpering about needing the next installment quickly. That said, I must say that when it comes to a bit of slapstick Soo proves himself to be truly in his element; Portia’s attempts to hide Jellaby (and how does one hide a purple dragon?) are chuckle-inducing and provide a nice dose of comic relief whenever the book gets too serious.

Last but not least, Soo’s art is beautiful. I recently raved about his work in Flight Explorer Vol. 1, and I’ll do so here as well. I love the way he draws the book, with its soft and gentle edges and colors. The purple-hued look to the book makes it really stand out in a good way, providing a pleasing overall look to the pages. You could easily strip all the dialogue out of the book and still understand what’s going on, from Portia’s bored, daydreaming expressions in class, to Jason’s look of utter shock at the appearance of Jellaby (even as Portia desperately tries to shove him back out the window). Each page is a real delight to look at, both because of how well Soo tells the story from panel to panel as well how he renders every single character.

Jellaby Vol. 1 is a gorgeous, thoroughly entertaining book. I’d actually almost forgotten how much I loved Jellaby until I read this first volume, and then it captured my heart all over again. With books like Amulet, Flight Explorer, Salt Water Taffy, and Jellaby being published, it is an awfully good time to be a younger reader in comics. Then again, to be fair, Jellaby (and all the other books just mentioned) have one even more important thing in common—they aren’t just for younger readers. Jellaby truly is a book that can and will be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Highly recommended.

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