Black characters, children's book, fantasy, graphic novel, Janet Lee, Jim McCann, Return of the Dapper Men, robots/androids/cyborgs/automatons, sci-fi, science fiction, story book, summer reading list
“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us.”
— Capt. Hook, Peter Pan by JM Barrie
A few years ago I was taking my morning jog and passed by a school I used to attend. As I ran down the sidewalk, I noticed a soccer ball pop over the fence and bounce into the street. Instinctually, I’d already begun to turn my body towards the ball to retrieve it. But before I’d even taken a few steps into the street, a young boy’s voice called out to me from the other side of the fence. “Mister!” It took me a moment to realise he was talking to me. “Hey, mister! Could you get our ball?” Being the kind-hearted soul that I am, I was more than happy retrieve the ball and toss it back without even breaking my stride. Still, I must admit that – as silly as it sounds – I was a little wounded. For the first time I’d been addressed by a word that was not used in a way to prefix my name, but to identify me as… an adult. One of those bill-paying, job-having, politic-talking grown-ups that doesn’t know how to have fun anymore.
With such an epiphany comes the inevitable wish to go back to a certain age of your youth and live there forever; to stop time itself as you are at the peak of your physical beauty and strength; to live as the Lost Boys of Neverland without a care in the world and your every necessity catered to. The children who inhabit the world of Anorev are in such a state.
The land of Anorev is a place trapped in time – literally. There was once a time when the large clock in the town square would “tick” and “tock” all day long. But one day there was a “tick” but no “tock” and everything stopped: the sun stayed in the same place in the sky; the grass stopped growing; and, most importantly, the children stopped aging.
One such child is a boy named Ayden; like all the children he lives underground, has no parents (there are no adults to be found anywhere), and stopped aging who-knows-how-long-ago. His best friend is a red-haired robot named Zoe, who lives above ground with her parents and the rest of the robots. Ayden and Zoe are different in that he is always asking questions and she inspires him to do so (Zoe never speaks). Both are warned to stop doing so immediately.
But there are nothing but questions to be asked when one day, falling from the sky, appear 314 “dapper” men – so named as they are all impeccably dressed in green bowler hats, black and white stripped jackets, milk-white pants, and full brogue shoes. They seem to know why time has stopped and what the people can do start it again. One of them, simply known as “41”, would like the help of Ayden and Zoe in doing so.
But how exactly does one start or stop time? And how do you do it when there is a world of people telling you not?
From that clumsily-worded description you may have picked up on a few sources to which Return of the Dapper Men alludes: there are some very clear nods to Peter Pan, Lord of the Flies, a teaspoon of Romeo and Juliet, and even the robot tales of Isaac Asimov. It’s strength lies in the fact that while it wears all of its influences on its sleeve, it’s careful to find the line between “homage” and “rip-off”. Jim McCann has written a story in which the reader fall down the rabbit hole and land in the socially split Metropolis dreamt up by Fritz Lang (or Tezuka Osamu).
McCann’s whimsical story is matched, if not outdone, by the gentle-yet-solid pencils of Janet Lee. Like the storybooks of old, Lee’s hand-drawn pictures show a clear symbiosis between both the characters and the technology surrounding them. Very few straight lines are used and to see the children surrounded by so many gears is to understand young Ayden and Zoe’s instincts to play among them. Also striking was Lee’s use of watercolour and pages from other books in the background. When industry standards lead most illustrators to do such things via computer, Lee’s “arts ‘n crafts” approach (which is explained in detail through photos and sketches in the hardcover edition) amazes with its simplicity.
To return to the story: McCann does well in revealing that complicated subjects are worth discussing with young children. The ideas of society fetishising youth, dismissing scientific ideas of its creation, and standing in the way of its own progress aren’t topics one would expect to find on the shelf next to Goodnight, Moon. But they are treated with a level of respect for the reader’s intelligence that’s often lacking in politically-minded tomes aimed at adults.
Though the book was published in 2011, I couldn’t help but draw parallel between it and a film released this year: Prometheus. That film, like the book, also involves one automaton and a group of humans (although the book uses only one, Ayden) looking towards the sky in search of their creators. Upon finding said creators – with their unusual albino-like complexions – our searchers realise that with answers must come some form of destruction, for that is how society progresses.
The book posits these questions in the form of the one Dapper Man who actually speaks, “41”. Although he does talk, he does so in a very aloof manner and refuses to give anyone a straight answer. “We can’t be everywhere at once”, 41 says. “Well, we could, I suppose, but that’s neither here nor there. Or there. Or even way over there.” This, combines with his supernatural abilities and apparent working knowledge of the world he’s in leads to a great deal of frustration amongst the characters.
But young Ayden begins to see a method to his madness: in order for the people of Anorev to make any progress, they’re going to have to answer for themselves, rather than being told. The fact Ayden is one of the few Black heroes (most of the book’s characters are either White or androids; Ayden’s race is never acknowledged openly) in a genre that tends to whitewash foreign fables is yet another acknowledgement of how society has progressed from the myopic worlds of past fantasy authors.
The book is not perfect by any means: 41’s idiosyncrasies are occasionally annoying and the latter-half comes off as a race to the finish line (but I’m willing to forgive that element, in as much as the book was aimed at younger readers). Still, an old-fashioned sci-fi tale with a Black lead character is enough to get my attention. The fact that all of those elements were well-executed after I’d turned the final page is what made reading this a treat.