Four American folktales come alive in this collection of comics from award-winning creators Aaron Blecha, Martin Powell, Lisa K. Weber, Sean Tulien, Nelson Evergreen, Stephanie True Peters, and Michelle Lemoreaux. Tall includes the following stories: Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed.
Tall: Great American Folktales is a comic anthology retelling the story of these four legends. Each tale is 34 pages in length with illustrations that are often as tall and colorful as the tale.
The Tall Tale of Paul Bunyan Retold by Martin Powell with art by Aaron Blecha, Paul Bunyan is an American legend like no other. Paul and his companion Babe, a blue ox, stomped through Minnesota, leaving behind the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes and through Tennessee where Paul created The Smoky Mountains. Legend has it that Paul and Babe loved to wrestle and would do so for days at a time. It was during one of these playtimes that Paul and Babe made the Grand Canyon. Paul then defeated Old Man Winter, whose tears are now Lake Superior. No one knows where the two went to after that. When I was a kid, I saw them in Indiana and a few years later in Michigan
Pecos Bill Colossal Cowboy Retold by Sean Tulien with Lisa Weber illustrating, Pecos Bill was a star of the Old West and the best cowboy anyone had ever seen or ever will. He showed all the other cowboys how to rustle cattle with a lasso he invented and introduced the branding iron as a way of knowing which cattle belonged to which cowboy. With his side-kick Widow Maker, Pecos Bill lassoed a monster twister and squeezed it so tight it cried itself dry, forming The Rio Grande. Once, Bill shot out all the stars, except for the largest and shiniest, now known as The Lone Star.
John Henry: Hammerin’ Hero Retold by Stephanie Peters and artist Nelson Evergreen, John Henry was a tall man with iron muscles and a heart made out of gold. Born with an iron hammer in his hand, John set off to make my mark on the world shortly after the North won the civil war freeing the slaves. John found work on the railroad laying track. John could hammer a steel rod into the ground with one strike, and he was fast. A fancy steam-powered drill salesman heard stories of John saving fellow workers from cave-ins and other heroic feats. He challenged John to a race, saying his machine could out drill any man. Big Ben Mountain was the site of the contest between man and machine. John won but paid a heavy price for his victory.
The Legend of Johnny Appleseed Retold by Martin Powell and illustrated by Michelle Lamoreaux, John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts. His life goal was to plant apple seeds throughout the country so no one went hungry. Johnny and his companion Brother Wolfe walked around the country planting his seeds and making friends everywhere they went. Johnny Appleseed became a living legend. All sorts of stories about Johnny Appleseed have been told, some true, some not so true. Some say he played with grizzly bears, wrestle three at once. Others say he tamed a giant catfish that was causing shipwrecks. Still others say Johnny Appleseed walked on a rainbow, planting apple seeds along the way.
Tall tales are about characters that are bigger than real life, though sometimes based on a real person or a composite of two or more people. The stories are unbelievable but told like the real thing. Johnny Appleseed was a real man who did walk the country planting apple trees. He traveled from Illinois to Pennsylvania, and down to Kentucky. In addition to apples, Johnny planted herbs used in medicines. Born in 1775, John Chapman lived to be age 70.
John Henry was also a real man and he did work the railroad. He was a powerful man and he was a strong man. John drove spikes into rock, just as the legend claims. No one knows if he raced against a machine, but there is a monument to John Henry at one opening of the railroad tracks tunneling through Big Bend Mountain. Born in the 1850’s, John Henry was a slave until freed at the end of the Civil War.
Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are the two who have no traces of humanity. Both began as characters in a story and grew from there. Paul Bunyan became a character in an advertising campaign for a logging company. Pecos Bill started out in a magazine, went into a book and later comics. Still, I remember Paul and Babe from my childhood. We visited the two first in Indiana and then in Michigan. He was tall and powerful. I will never forget standing on Paul’s gigantic black boot. His story is engaging, often funny, definitely “tall,” and the one I enjoyed the most.
In Tall: Great American Folktales the illustrations of Paul Bunyan are on the cartoonish side, but I really like them. He was a big man with gentle features and his foes did not look scary. The story was great and the comics were wonderful. Pecos Bill also has the cartoon look Paul Bunyan has, just not as extreme. The frames of Pecos Bill the Coyote are hilarious. This is the next best story of the four. The illustrations of John Henry are less cartoonish than Paul Bunyan and Pesos Bill. They depict him as a tall, powerful man yet gentle.
Johnny Appleseed looks like an anime. He has the Japanese cartoon look and I see him as weak and out of place, not at all like a TALL legend but more like a fairy tale. The story of Johnny Appleseed walking from place to place on a rainbow pretty much cinched that for me. I thought the portrayal of Johnny Appleseed would be closer to the true man, like those of John Henry.
All four of these tales are engaging, often humorous and unbelievable just as tall tales should be. If you like comics, way-out fiction, and fun reads, Tall: Great American Folktales will tickle you. As a colorful introduction to folklore for the middle grades, I think it is a winner.