Complete timely coincidence here. A week ago Molly and I pick out The Savage from our local library. This week a copy of David Almond and Dave McKean’s latest; Slog’s Dad drops through the letterbox. Figured we’d start with The Savage and see where we get.
Well, Molly was transfixed. I read it first and loved it, then read it to her later that night, then she read it herself. And again, and again. The library copy goes back today, the copy I’ve just ordered should be with us soon. It’s a keeper. No question.
The Savage is the story of Blue Baker, just a normal everyday kid who’s lost his dad. He’s doing his best to cope, being strong for his mum and younger sister, coping with town bully Hopper picking on him even more now his dad’s dead and listening to the school counsellor telling him to write down his thoughts, “explore my grief“, “start moving forward“. And he does write, at least for a while but it all seems too huge, so instead he starts writing his own story of The Savage, full of his the things he wanted (“blood and guts and adventures“), badly spelt but so heartfelt, filled with local places, local people, with himself, with his family and with Hopper. It starts….
“There was a wild kid living in Burgess Woods,“
(The first glimpse of The Savage of the title, whose weapons were “old kitchen knives and forks and an axe that he nicked from Franky Finnigin’s alotment”. From The Savage by David Almond and Dave McKean, published by Walker Books)
As it goes on, Blue’s story, obviously pure wish fulfillment and his way of striking back at a cruel world that’s done so much wrong to him, becomes more personal, and his connection with The Savage becomes closer as he writes more of himself and his situation into his story.
Blue finds himself discovering more of the world of this wild boy, living in the woods on a diet of “berries and roots and rabbits” and the occasional passer-by. But then something shifts as The Savage pays a night-time visit to the bully Hoppper and there’s magic happening. Not real magic, but fiction magic, book magic, when the lines between the two worlds of Blue and The Savage start to blur and the two entwined tales shift and merge as the boundaries between fiction and reality break down.
It’s part prose, part graphic novel, described on the back cover as “an extraordinary graphic novel within a novel“. In truth it’s too short to be either of those things but the comics within the prose does work magnificently with Almond breaking his story into two – the prose deals with Blue’s life whilst the graphic novel section is Blue’s story of The Savage.
(McKean’s visuals are perfect at capturing the savagery of the title, as The Savage seeks out Blue’s tormentor Hopper. From The Savage by David Almond and Dave McKean, published by Walker Books)
McKean was given complete freedom to adapt and interpret Almond’s short story how he saw fit and the resulting comic pages are really beautiful. McKean chooses to do this in his old style, brushes rather than computers and lines rather than 3D modelling, rather reminiscent of Cages at times – with his big, bold black strokes McKean delivers something savage, yet thoughtful, as his lines do everything they need to convey the brutal and tragic world of Almond’s prose.
His decision to use his own scratchy font for the story of The Savage and limiting the art to a very simple colour palette of greens and blues throughout is similarly masterful – greens for the Savage and blues for the “real” world of blue and his family. But just like the story, there are times when the two meld and coallesce into something more than real.
The Savage is definitely a book that treats it’s intended readers with immense respect – no half-hearted explanations, no punches pulled, this is intense, difficult stuff for older children to read, to absorb and to enjoy.
There’s no simple reading of The Savage, no black and white, right and wrong, this is fiction that asks children to make their own minds up, trusts them to think and understand and question. I know what I think happened and Molly knows what she thinks happened. You, and your children will have to make your own minds up. But whatever way you go, the ending and the twists to the story that get you there are wonderful.
It’s a book that remains with you long after you finish it, and a book that never falters – something strange, disturbing, brutal and honest. But brilliant and magical as well, a beautiful example of prose and comic arts coming together to make the resultant hybrid form far greater than it’s individual parts.