Luke Pearson's work was the biggest revelation from the initial wave of books Nobrow Press sent to me last year. Pearson's work blends classic European cartooning techniques with Japanese figurework, along with a sense of quiet wonder and melancholy that's all his. In Hilda And The Midnight Giant, the first of what is intended to be a series of all-ages books, Pearson has taken the Hilda character that debuted in the comic book Hildafolk and transferred her into a traditional European-style hardcover album format. Like the best all-ages books, Hilda doesn't insult the intelligence of adults but still provides all sorts of fun business for children. The cover and its font seem to be deliberately trying to evoke both Hergé and Tove Jansson, though the tone of the book is far closer to the latter than the former.
Pearson's art is aesthetically pleasing. Beyond the story and the themes, I simply enjoy looking at the shapes and colors he puts on the page. His plucky heroine Hilda is a marvel of compact but expressive character design. She lives in a cabin out in the woods with her mother, and befriends every weird creature she meets in the forest in this light fantasy. With her oval head, jutting & triangular nose, stick-figure legs, oversized red boots, blue hair and huge eyes that owe as much to Warner Brothers as they do to manga, there's a tremendous sense of balance and power that she contains. Her torso, roughly shaped like a triangle, gives her a base that can explode into action at a moment's notice but still be funny and cute at the same time. Pearson varies his page design to fit his story's needs: some pages, filled with tiny and invisible elves, have up to eighteen panels. Other pages that contain mountain-sized giants might only have five or six, with the last panel taking up two-thirds of the page.
The plot of the story is simple: as it turns out, Hilda and her mother live smack-dab in the middle of elf-country, only the elves are invisible to human eyes—if the proper paperwork has not been submitted. A new elf prime minister is ushered into office with the mandate of getting rid of Hilda and her mother, and the book opens with the elves throwing rocks, ripping up books, and trying to forcefully push the duo out, before Hilda routs them with a push broom. Meanwhile, Hilda spots a mountain-sized creature at midnight, only for it to quickly disappear. The allusions to Jonathan Swift essentially drive the comic, as Hilda experiences the feeling of being a giant threatening a tiny civilization (as with L. Gulliver and the kingdom of Lilliput in Gulliver's Travels) as well as being a nearly insignificant speck to a pair of giants in love (a different take on the Brobdingnagians). While visual jokes abound in this book, the story of the elves is one of bureaucracy and procedure run amok to the point of a total diffusion of responsibility. On the other hand, the tale of the Midnight Giant is one of despair-inducing loneliness, a theme that runs through every one of Pearson's comics. While the book ends on an up note, Pearson can't resist unleashing a final gag that's emotionally devastating until Hilda herself comes to terms with it.
Pearson does something interesting when the Midnight Giant finally finds his lost companion. Earlier in the book, Pearson goes big to emphasize the hugeness of the giant and his relationship to Hilda and her environment. When the giants meet, Pearson switches to a nine- to twelve-panel grid that emphasizes the core similarity of Hilda, the elves, and the giants. The hugeness of the giants is conversely toned down as the reader understands that their emotional needs are the same as that of Hilda and the elves: the desire for quiet, the yearning for companionship, and the need for their own space. The book is largely about the ways in which we get in our own way trying to find these things, and Hilda's reaction at the end shows that she understands how to get out of her own way at last. This book is a perfect blend of warmth and cynicism, of hope and pessimism, and of reality and fantasy. The fantasy and all-ages format forces Pearson to play to his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses as a storyteller, and he has the potential to create a series of books that could some day be remembered as classics.