Craig Thompson, who has seemingly conquered the adult market with his bestselling graphic novels Blankets and Habibi, now turns his attention to crafting a story for younger readers in Space Dumplins. Thompson’s stories are known for their gorgeous black & white brush work, Christian allegorical overtones, and stories centered around family life and Space Dumplins continues this trend for a new audience. But unlike his other books, this one fails to hit its mark.
Family is everything in Violet’s world. It’s all she really has after all; with no planet or port to call home, her family lives in a ship floating in space, while dangerous space whales that eat everything in their path fly past. She can’t say that she really has any friends either, but that’s all about to change. When her father goes missing on a dangerous job and no one else seems interested, Violet sets off to look for him by herself. Soon she gathers a group of other misfits to help rescue her dad and maybe even help save her small corner of the universe.
The best thing I can say about Space Dumplins is that Thompson tries—I mean he TRIES really, really hard—to craft a book for younger readers. But it falters on so many different levels, as Thompson often seems confused about what type of story it is that he wants to tell. Starting with the characters, we have Violet, a young girl about eight or nine, who’s just starting to figure out life and cares about her family. And she works great! She acts like a typical young girl, but her friends her age, Elliot (a walking, talking space chicken) and Zacchaeus (a weird, lumpy alien), act and speak more like condensed versions of Stephen Hawking and Bill Maher spouting dialogue like, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and talking of visions of what the future will hold. These will likely not only go over young reader’s heads, but make adults scramble for the dictionary wondering what the heck the character is talking about.
The next problem area is the story itself. Thompson really likes allegorical references to other works, and they show up throughout Blankets and Habibi, which work well when you’re creating a book geared towards older readers. But when you’re writing a book aimed at younger readers and you reference Moby Dick and obscure parts of the Bible, such as the Book of Ruth, that many adults aren’t familiar with, it creates problems with creating a relatable story. In this case, if Thompson had focused the story upon the rescuing of the family without using allegorical overtones regarding the destruction of the environment, dependency on foreign subsidies, and patriarchal society, then the story would have worked reasonably well. Instead, it is a mishmash of ideas and dialogue that becomes confusing. Thompson should take cues from Doug TenNapel’s books, which also include heavy allegorical references to Christian belief, but are written for younger readers. An epic like this tends to work better when the chapters are given room to breathe and the story is spaced across several books, like Bone or Amulet. Space Dumplins is just packed with too much information.
Lastly, I never thought I’d say this about a Craig Thompson work, but the artwork is overly complicated and often muddles the story. Thompson is known for his beautiful black and white brush strokes and he’s really used to that standing in for color. This is fine when the work is designed for black and white, but in this case adding color on top often creates a muddled page. I think Thompson was trying to take a page from Jeff Smith’s Bone and make the main characters, the kids in this case, out of simple shapes so that readers can more easily imagine themselves as the characters. But he then goes overboard adding details like feathers, tattoos, and weird tentacles that may stand out great in black and white, but get lost in all the color.
This is one of those books that will likely be divisive on how readers respond to it. Thompson’s reputation is likely to draw in many readers, but just as many may be turned off by the story.
by Craig Thompson
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12