By Jared Cullum, Top Self Productions, 176 pages, 2020. $14.99
Not every child in Alaska befriends a bear, and in the real world, this is best for both children and bears. But in the world of kids’ books, there are times when a child and a bear need each other. Such is the case for a young lady named Katya, and for Kodi, the bear she rescues and befriends, only to be separated from by circumstance. But neither will be deterred from their friendship
This is the basic outline of Jared Cullum’s delightful new graphic novel, which explores the relationship between a misfit kid and a lovable grizzly in a gentle tale suitable for all ages, including grownups.
“Kodi” is a fine example of why graphic novels work so well as children’s literature. At their best, graphic novels provide young readers with compelling storylines driven by words and pictures in ways that will encourage both a love of reading and an appreciation for art. And on both levels, “Kodi” delivers wonderfully.
The story opens in an unspecified coastal Alaskan town where Katya is spending the summer with her grandmother, who she calls Meema, in a cabin in the woods. As with all such combinations, there’s a bit of conflict. In this case it’s Meema trying to get Katya to find friends, while Katya prefers to spend her days immersed in comic books and art supplies.
One rainy afternoon while returning from town, Katya slips and tumbles from a log bridge and lands in front of a large bear with a leg trapped under a fallen tree. She rushes home to Meema, who, being as independent-minded as her granddaughter, loads Katya in her sidecar-equipped motorcycle and, with horsepower and a rope, frees the bear. Katya takes him home to care for him while he recovers from his injury, naming him Kodi and setting the stage for their impending adventures.
Once on the mend, Kodi heads into the woods with Katya, showing off his fishing skills and letting her ride atop his back through the nearby village. A boring summer for Katya is suddenly enlivened, and the friendship between her and Kodi blossoms.
It’s all cut short, however, when Katya and Meema have to return home unexpectedly. A heartbroken Katya paints a picture of her hometown of Seattle — complete with the iconic Space Needle — telling Kodi this is where she will be.
If Katya is sad to be leaving, Kodi is determined to follow his newfound friend. Stowing away on a cruise ship, he reaches Seattle, hoping to be reunited with her. Once in the Emerald City, he encounters a down-on-his-luck fisherman named Joshua, who hires Kodi after witnessing those fishing skills he’d displayed to Katya earlier. And in return, after seeing Katya’s painting which Kodi still carries, Joshua joins in the search for her.
Here we should pause and highlight Cullum’s skills as both writer and artist, and how he blends them so well. Aiming his book at younger readers, Cullum lets the story flow at a relaxed yet well-timed pace. There are moments of drama, and in the book’s climax, when Kodi has to rescue Katya, a bit of action. But the events never overwhelm the narrative, a frequent pitfall for some graphic novels. The magically implausible friendship between the two remains the focus of this story.
Accomplishing this requires giving the characters room to develop and breathe, and Cullum does so through artwork as much as words. The pair’s explorations of the surrounding woods in Alaska are largely silent as Cullum’s unique style takes hold of the story. He combines watercolors with cartooning in this book, and it results in a visually appealing display of two converse approaches that offset each other nicely.
For his backgrounds and staging, he uses watercolors that capture the places the story goes with a realistic sense that will draw readers into the page. Whether it’s the rainforest of Alaska or the damp streets of Seattle, the artwork in this book feels right at home.
The images are not technically accurate down to the last detail, yet in their blurriness, they convey the washed-over ambiance of the Northwest coast familiar to anyone who has spent time in that part of the world. Particularly in the Alaska sequences, the combination of mountains, water, forest, and inclement weather that Cullum paints embody the contradictory feelings of claustrophobic entrapment and endless possibility that seem to coexist in the Southeast Panhandle. It’s a world at once both too big for words, and too small.
He also captures rainy Seattle nicely, and by placing the urban action on and along the piers north of the city’s Ship Canal, rather than in the gaudy tourist waterfront of downtown, he keeps the story firmly placed in the world of working fishermen where it began. The location shifts midway through, but the cultural feel doesn’t.
His people, meanwhile, are drawn as cartoons over his watercolors. This allows Cullum to bend them every which way, into impossible forms and angles that he could not twist them into if he were rendering them realistically, yet which convey their individual characters to wonderful effect. From the moment an upside-down Katya makes her first appearance five pages in, she’s precocious, endearing, and for adults at least, challenging. And this is shown through the artwork as much as through her dialogue. The contrast between the watercolor realism in the backdrops, and the comic strip characters wandering through them, makes every page of this book visually appealing and fun, and always in ways that carry the story forward. It’s fine art and entertaining at the same time.
“Kodi” is a great book for young readers, but also a sweet tale for their parents and other adults. It’s an homage to Alaska and the Northwest that captures the region marvelously, and then sets childhood imagination at its heart. With words and art perfectly balanced, it shows how graphic novels, in skilled hands, can do things neither words nor pictures alone can achieve.