The ballads of old overflow with fantastic stories waiting to be told via sequential art - they practically cry out to be rendered in this medium. Within this collection of beautifully drawn tales by Charles Vess, thirteen different authors try their hand at scripting a famous ballad. The final product, The Book of Ballads, turns out to be so fine a representation of graphic novel that it was nominated for an Eisner Award for The Best Graphic Novel Album Reprint in 2005 (the hardcover version was released in November 2004).
Right from the introduction by Terry Windling, readers will be assured that this is not merely a simple re-writing of old ballads but a legitimate academic endeavor replete with references, source material, and recommendation for further reading. Windling’s detailed eleven-page introduction discusses historical and literary aspects to many of the ballads as well as other renditions of the works. Windling’s experience as an editor and writer of American fantasy makes her highly qualified to explore the themes and ideas of each ballad.
The end-piece to each ballad contains the written words of the ballad. The back of the graphic novel includes a discography, with source material regarding texts and performance. This adds heaps of usability to this book. If a reader is interested in hearing the ballad performed or seeing it in historical texts, these resources will be of great assistance to them. After the discography, readers can also check out brief biographies of each author or artist involved in this book.
For the most part, Charles Vess does this book justice. His use of darkness and tension within the panel provide great energy for the tales being told. He seems to falter in his art when it comes to wide open bright areas though. His ability to create fantastic panels correlates to the amount of material within each panel. His choice of presentation for each tale proves interesting, such as in “The Three Loves: A Play” in which the frame of each panel acts as a stage border. Instead of readers typically feeling inside the world of the story, we are merely viewers of a play. The dynamic plays interestingly within the context of the comic panel. Where Vess flounders is with “Tam Lin.” Here, Vess writes a script for a play with accompanying pictures—not really sequential art. While beautifully drawn, the pictures merely highlight particular moments within the story and do not really provide a narrative in and of themselves. He does this to a lesser to degree with the ballad “Allison Gross.” These two prove the exception, though, not the rule.
Literature and comic fans will both find ample entertainment in this graphic novel. The fantastic elements of these Anglo ballads and the art is certain the be appealing to the fans, while the visual depiction and literary seriousness of the text will more than impress the literarily-inclined.