The story starts with Mike, a single dad, looking for work at construction sites. On his way home, he stops at a roadside toy vendor who advertises having cheap prices. He wants to get something for his son’s birthday, but he’s been out of work so long that he cannot afford even the least expensive toy. Disappointed, Mike agrees to spend 79 cents on the vendor’s cardboard box, though the seller does have some rules for Mike to follow, like bringing back every piece of scrap cardboard. When Mike gets home, he presents his son, Cam, with the cardboard. However, the neighborhood bully witnesses this and proceeds to tease Cam about getting a cardboard box for his birthday. In spite of that, Mike’s son is pleased and excited to spend his birthday making something out of the cardboard. They build and paint Bill, a boxing champion, before falling asleep, but the guys wake up at three in the morning to find that Bill has come to life. Cam delights in his new-found friend, but the bully down the street is determined to ruin his fun.
The story is incredibly creative, with multiple levels for people to enjoy. Kids can be astonished by the magical cardboard and adults can feel Mike’s heartbreak at losing his wife and his job. The writing is intriguing and fast paced. However, the characterizations feel a little shallow. It is a world where real men drive trucks and refuse to take handouts. Cam is the perfect son: sweet, creative, and excited, with no faults. The reader is shown over and over again that Mike is just down on his luck because of the economy and unable to move on from his wife’s death. The neighborhood bully is snotty, mean, and selfish. While it would be tricky to predict what happens with the cardboard with so much imagination put into it, the emotional parts of the story follow every cliché out there.
TenNapel’s art continues in the style of his earlier work, such as Ghostopolis. The drawings of the characters reflect their personalities quite a bit, so it’s pretty clear who you can trust just by looking at them. The cardboard is where the art really shines, considering that it is displaying a material that is normally fairly boring to look at. However, in the story the cardboard has depth, dimension, and even a personality. A lot of it is weirdly fascinating to look at, with strange creatures and a disgusting depiction of pink eye. Whether you like peculiar drawings or not, you can certainly find something interesting to look at.
The inventiveness of the story makes it a good romp through this fantasy universe, although it could have used less stereotyped characters. Even so, most kids and teens will find the book fun and exciting with imagination on display for all to see. Since we are still in this downtrodden economy, it might even be comforting for some to witness Cam’s hopeful and persevering attitude.
by Doug TenNapel