November 14, 2013
Bluffton by Matt Phelan
by Matt Phelan
Prepared for another slow-moving, summer day in Muskegon, Michigan, Henry can’t believe his eyes when the train pulls to a stop and out of one of the box cars climbs an elephant and a large group of people. They look normal enough but who travels with an elephant? Henry soon finds the answer — show people, vaudevillians. They’ve come to Michigan to stay at the summer cottages in Bluffton.
Soon Henry finds his way to Bluffton, a nearby community he’s never visited before, and there he sees a man practicing a high wire act, a zebra and three children who come diving out of a window accompanied by the threatening shouts of the man inside. Henry meets the oldest boy, Buster, and discovers that he wasn’t in danger, this is all part of his family’s act. They are knockabouts — comedians who practice rough and tumble, slap stick humor comedian.
Henry returns to Bluffton with a group of local boys to play baseball with the newcomers. Soon Henry finds himself spending as much time as possible in Bluffton, loving the excitement of the performers pranks which he finds much more exciting than the ho hum hardware store his father owns. This love for the excitement of vaudeville sometimes puts Henry in conflict with Buster who wants to play as much baseball as possible, sip lemonade with a cute girl, and just be.
Phelan does an amazing job with this fictionalized story of the childhood of Buster Keaton. Phelan captures the excitement of vaudeville, contrasting it with the ordinary life that these children might long for but would never truly lead. Subtly woven throughout the story are themes about being yourself and not always longing for what the other guy has.
I have to admit that I’m not always a huge graphic novel fan, but this one pulled me in and held me close from beginning to end. In part, I was drawn in by the gentle water color look of the artwork, which contrasts sharply with the harsh film noir look of so much graphic novel art. This homey, gentle look was perfect for this story.
Pick it up and prepare to be pulled into another time and another place.