Jon Chad has been a member of the faculty of the Center for Cartoon Studies for several years, after graduating from the Savannah College of Art & Design. The first thing one notices when reading his work is that he has incredible chops and control over his line. His love of detail and “eye pops” doesn’t get in the way of the clarity of his storytelling, however, making him an ideal candidate to craft straightforward narratives, especially for children. In his first book, Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth, Chad takes the blank-faced titular hero and puts him through a series of clever formal traps spiced up with as much science talk as he can get away with.
The story is simple: Leo, a geologist, decides that he wants to visit the center of the earth–“for science”. From the shape of the book (13″ x 5″), one would expect it to be a side-scrolling adventure. Instead, Leo instructs the reader to turn the book ninety degrees so that the reader’s eye goes down the long end of the page. When Leo reaches the center of the earth, he decides not to go back the way he came, but to travel to the other end of the earth. As a result, the reader turns the book 180 degrees and follows the action up the page. It’s a clever way to entertain and disorient a young reader while clearly leading them through an unconventionally structured comics page. Indeed, the book feels more like an “infinite canvas” webcomic than a traditional comic book.
The book is aimed at readers seven and up, though Chad throws a lot of science and big words at young readers. The beauty of this book is that despite the insane amount of detail that Chad heaps on each page and the jargon he throws at the reader, anyone could read and comprehend it without understanding a single word of text or looking at the extraneous detail. That’s because his easy-to-spot character literally moves down through white space (the tunnels he finds or creates), thus moving the reader’s eye through space. It’s obvious that he’s digging deep into the earth, that he encounters monsters, that he finds a magic dagger, and that he goes up the opposite way and has to fight his way through more monsters. Chad even indulges in a bit of tastefully presented scatological humor when Leo jumps into the mouth of a monster and comes out the other end.
There’s a weird tension at play in the text, as Leo gives textbook definitions of the earth’s layers, discusses various types of lava and rocks, introduces the Mohs scale of hardness and all sorts of other geological information. At the same time, Leo is able to travel through the earth’s layers and withstand withering temperatures without any protection, walk several thousand miles without any rest, encounters all sorts of monsters and finds a magic dagger. Leo gives no winks to the reader as to what’s real and what’s ridiculous, though in a brief afterword there’s a brief note that some of the types of rock he finds wouldn’t be where he saw them and that some of the creatures he met were currently unclassified by science. Despite these flights of fancy, Chad really does get a lot of science across, as when he notes that the earth’s outer core is responsible for our planet’s magnetic fields.
This isn’t like a Toon Books volume, something that one might hand to a beginning reader—indeed, Leo Geo is a book that’s meant for a more ambitious young reader of both books and comics—but the format of the book makes it compulsively readable and even propulsive. The reader is compelled to see what Leo does next as he makes his way down and then up through his environment. The way that Leo is drawn multiple times on the same page gives him the same sense of movement as a video game character, as each page contains a single environment that Leo navigates, instead of having multiple panels with the same environment. The book rewards multiple readings, if only to soak in the sideline details and little jokes that Chad throws in on every single page. The book is tightly paced, dense, and is short enough to end without wearing out its welcome. It’s a fine addition to the rapidly growing set of comics aimed at kids that aren’t simply superheroes or traditional fantasy.