Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow have lived their whole young lives in the dark. But that’s the normal the way of life in Ember, the city that is only place where there is light in their dark world. Based on Jeanne DuPrau’s children’s book of the same name, The City of Ember: the graphic novel is a tale of discovery, belief, and determination.
As the tale opens, Lina and Doon are being assigned their jobs for three years, like the rest of their school class. Vocations such as Supply Depot Clerk, Electrician’s Helper, or Doctor’s Assistant are being drawn randomly under the watchful eye of Ember’s Mayor Cole. Doon is clearly disappointed when he draws Messenger, leading Mayor Cole to lecture not only him but all the students about making Ember continue to prosper. Doon really wanted to be a Pipeworks Laborer, for he knows that Ember is not prospering, but slowly decaying, and he makes an enemy of Cole by bluntly saying so. For in the Pipeworks is the generator, which supplies Ember with the power to keep alight. That generator is becoming more and more faulty, leading to blackouts in the already dark city. Luckily for Doon, Lina thinks that Messenger is the best job, fitting in with her inquisitive, restless nature. And it is she who drew the job of Pipeworks Laborer. After they leave school, the two quickly agree to switch.
But though this exchange draws them together, neither job is what they hope for. Doon quickly realizes that he has little hope of being able to fix the generator and, as Lina gets to know more about Ember, she realizes Doon is right about their situation. Lina has also been dreaming about another city, someplace that is open and clean and full of light, in other words, everything the slowly dying Ember is not. It is only when her ailing grandmother becomes frantic while looking for something she lost that Lina finds a clue: something may indeed exist in the darkness beyond Ember’s failing light. She asks Doon, with his new familiarity of the tunnels below Ember, to help solve the mystery of what it could be. This leads both children to places they never expected, as well as into direct conflict with Mayor Cole and his government’s authoritarian control of the city.
With the story adapted by Dallas Middaugh and lushly illustrated by Niklas Asker, the graphic novel does justice to DuPrau’s moody vision. Asker in particular is effective in his use of color, with rich earth tones predominating nearly every panel, not a bright nor cheery color in sight. Another smart choice is to make the borders of most pages and the comic’s gutters black, rather than the traditional white, adding to the almost claustrophobic atmosphere. His figures are also grounded in this dingy reality, having a weight to them through the use of excellent brush inks which let Asker vary his line and control what is emphasized.
The only minor detraction is the lack of DuPrau’s lovely descriptive prose that sets the scene in her novel so ably and describes her characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. In the novel, there are many lengthy paragraphs devoted to this, with little dialogue included. For instance, Doon has a fascination with all kinds of bugs that DuPrau describes in detail. With one exception, this is depicted in the graphic novel simply by a few panels of him staring contemplatively at a random insect.
There are many wordless panels where Askew’s excellent illustrations are asked to carry the weight and heft of DuPrau’s paragraphs. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes the words themselves are needed to explain the significance of the what we’re seeing. However, Middaugh makes the right choice here in his script, as captions or thought balloons restating what we are seeing would be both annoying and superfluous. This is a mistake many writers less familiar with the graphic novel art form make. It’s a delicate balance that Middaugh handles well, and if The City of Ember: the graphic novel loses some of its emotional depth, it’s through no fault of the adaptation. Sometimes one medium is simply able to convey things about a story better than others (a fact that pains this graphic novel enthusiast to admit).
Overall, fans of The City of Ember will enjoy this adaptation. It would be also great choice for reluctant readers who want to know the story but may be intimidated by DuPrau’s prose. The graphic novel has all the intelligence of the original work, rewarding inquisitive readers who should find it on the children’s shelves of your library.