Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King by William Joyce

We at the Jade Sphinx ring in the holiday season with a great treat – a look at the new book about Santa Claus by celebrated children’s author and illustrator, William Joyce.
“Children’s author,” though, seems something of a misnomer, considering the breadth and range of Joyce’s ambitions and accomplishments: he has also designed film characters (Toy Story and A Bug’s Life), has formed a new company, Moonbot, a Shreveport-based animation and visual effects studio, and he has recently produced a 13-minute animated short film and an e-book app called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  Joyce manages to do these things with an amazingly light touch and great insight – perhaps his real title should be Kid-in-Chief.
Earlier this year, Joyce started a remarkable undertaking: the creation of an entire cosmology incorporating all of the great myths of childhood (Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Boogeyman, etc) detailed in a series of picture books and young adult novels.  The first book in this series, which are all under a banner title The Guardians of Childhood, was The Man in the Moon, which was released this autumn to rave reviews.  He now picks up the Guardians saga with Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, co-written by Laura Geringer, which continues the overall story while introducing a key character who will later evolve into the Santa Claus beloved by folklore.
The concept of inter-connected picture books and prose novels is a unique one, and facilitates Joyce’s mythology nicely.  The Guardians of Childhood series is new territory for Joyce.  Most of his celebrated picture books were really chamber pieces: A Day With Wilbur Robinson (1990) detailed a simple afternoon, Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With The Family Lazardo (1988) described the summer of a sophisticated family and their pet brontosaurus, even his first stab at the Santa Claus legend, Santa Calls (1993), was really a one-night adventure story.  But Joyce’s goal with the Guardians is more complex and symphonic, and like L. Frank Baum and Oz, he is creating a whole alternate history, a densely packed saga of fantastic fiction that brings to life a fully-realized fantasyland.
Joyce has also rather heroically altered his signature style for his Guardians conception.  Rather than the vibrantly colored, sun-kissed slices of Americana that Joyce fans have sought in the past, Guardians tells a somewhat darker tale, with influences that run more deeply to European fantasies.  This beautifully designed book is filled with ‘illuminations’ (illustrations) by Joyce in pencil and charcoal.  The book design provides ample opportunity for Joyce to delight readers with full-page drawings and marginalia, and changes from white pages with black text to black pages with white text for a somber and effecting flashback.
Though darker than his other conceptions, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King is filled with typical Joycean joie de vivre and insouciance.  Despite the darkness of tone, Joyce’s prose is optimistic, zestful and fun.  (Some chapter titles include: Wherein Speaking Insect Languages Proves to Be of Value, Where the Impossible Occurs with Surprising Regularity, and Partly Cloudy and Most Unfair.)
The plot of the book is simple:  Pitch, the Nightmare King, was imprisoned previously by the Man in the Moon.   After an accidental escape, he threatens the children in the haven of a great wizard, Ombric Shalazar.  In much need of help, Ombric is joined by the swashbuckling bandit and freebooter, Nicholas St. North.
Re-imagining Santa Claus as a reformed swashbuckler is a stroke of genius.  There has always, perhaps, been a touch of roguishness in the Big Man From the North, just as there was more than a touch of Santa Claus in swashbuckling figures as diverse as Robin Hood, Simon Templar and Zorro.  Here is how Joyce first introduces the man who would be Santa:  Later that night, in the raggedy camp of the wildest ruffian of the Russian plains, there slept a young bandit chief named Nicholas St. North.  No one knew exactly how old he was, for even he did not know his birthday, but he was old enough for the beginnings of a beard and was without argument the most daring young rascal in all the Russias.  A hero he was not.  But it was said that he once defeated an entire regiment of cavalry with a bent steak knife – while he was eating.  Impressive swordsmanship indeed, but not the kind of achievement that would make a mother proud.
Joyce also returns to the notion of a haven, or contained paradise in this book.  This recurring them can be found in the art deco mansion in Wilbur Robinson, Toyland in Santa Calls, the enchanted forest in The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs (1996), and even the oversized house in George Shrinks (1985).  Even in his nonfiction book The World of William Joyce (1997) his studio seems to be a place where the rules of adulthood are suspended.  Here, Ombric Shalazar rules over Santoff Claussen, a land with talking bugs, owl sentries, trees that become homes, and all manner of magic. 
Like figures as diverse as Michael Chabon and Ray Bradbury, Joyce has drunk deep at the well of Americana.  His influences are many, and you can catch the current of many of them in his new book:  Oz, Robin Hood, robots, Superman, and Little Nemo in Slumberland.  But William Joyce is his own thing, almost his own genre.  Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King is a deeply satisfying continuation of his magnum opus, which is estimated to run a full 15 volumes.  It is eminently possible that, once he is done, William Joyce will truly inherit the mantle of L. Frank Baum, and enter into the folklore of children’s lit himself.

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