The Return of the Dapper Men: Jim McCann

Return of the Dapper Men – written by Jim McCann, illustrated by Janet Lee – accessed through Netgalley.

This is a hard book to review.  First, while it’s obvious that the artwork is beautiful, it was hard to appreciate it fully when every page of the digital preview copy I received through Netgalley was imprinted with an extremely obtrusive watermark.  I understand the desire to prevent piracy, but this huge, very obvious image distracted and detracted.

But that aside, I love the look of it.  It’s classic picture book wonder with a splash of comic book visual language, and solid underpinnings of fine art.  In short, it’s beautiful to look at.  Into a world in which the clocks no longer tock, and thence stopped ticking, and thence time stopped; where children 11 and under play amongst the gears below ground while machines work above, and there is no one else; where a clockwork angel watches over them all from the harbor while one of the machines, in love with her, works very hard to reach her – into the stasis, on the echoes of the first bell chimes in forever, come 314 dapper men, flying in on open umbrellas.  All are silent identical redheads who wear green bowlers and uniform frowns – except for one, who is cheerful and engaging and zooms in on the two most unusual folk of the land: a boy named Ayden and his best friend, a machine named Zoe.  They are friends where for the most part children and machines do not mingle.

And everything changes.

With the advent – the return – of the dapper men, time has started up again, and the sun begins to set for the first time anyone remembers, and Ayden and Zoe begin to find their destinies.

It’s a dreamlike story, with a steampunk edge, but with all it has going for it it is oddly unsatisfying.  Without details of the climax I can say that the reasons for it completely escaped me.  With details:  Why did the angel abruptly fall into the sea?  Did time catch up with her?  Why her and no one and nothing else?  How was Zoe her replacement, when she stood not quite as tall as the clockwork angel’s head?  Why did 41 die – and, more, why did he kill himself?  There was no apparent point to it, and nothing gained.  Why did the Dapper Men come back right then, and where have they been, and why did time begin again with their return – and, most annoying to me, why did it stop in the first place and where is everyone over the age of 11?   I’m fine with mystery and unresolved questions – but not when I’m promised answers and they never come.

It’s distinctly possible that the answers I’d like to have are hidden somewhere in the text; Tim Gunn says in his introduction that there are puzzles and anagrams throughout the book.  I dislike being made to feel stupid by what I read, and … well, the closest thing I found to the kind of wordplay he talks about is the place name Anorev, which is Verona backwards, and Zoe is shown standing on a pile of books including Romeo and Juliet.  There are layers of reference there (though a bit facile, in a way: this is no Romeo and Juliet story).  Otherwise … “Zoe” means “life”.  Ayden/Aiden means “little fire”.  41 is one less than Douglas Adams’s 42.  And so either I missed a whole level of the story, or, to quote Nicholas Stuart Gray, “It ducked”.

I like the idea.  I love the artwork.  The adjuncts were charming: the introduction by the dapperest man of all, Tim Gunn; guest artwork which ranged from adorable to gorgeous; and, my favorite, a behind-the-scenes making-of featurette detailing how one page came to life.  It just felt like the idea still remains just that: an idea, not quite communicated.

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