It’s been a long time since I’ve read an action/adventure graphic novel as satisfying as The Adventures of John Blake. I shouldn’t be that surprised, given that Philip Pullman is already an expert at writing involving stories that feel important, like The Golden Compass.
If The Golden Compass takes place in a steampunk world, I’d describe The Adventures of John Blake as wi-fi-punk. In present-day England, Australia, and the United States, characters are obsessed with their apparators; small, watch-like devices that have hologram (and presumably other) capabilities as well. Most apparators are owned and manufactured by Carlos Dahlberg and the Dahlberg Corporation. When Dahlberg hears that his competitor product has a quarter of his sales, he says to his assistant Julie McKee, “That’s five hundred million people not buying my product.”
When Dahlberg isn’t obsessed with his sales and his own grandeur, he’s obsessed with the time-traveling boat, the Mary Alice. Readers are introduced to other characters who are also obsessed with the Mary Alice: there’s British Admiral Roger Blake and International Maritime Organization employee Danielle Quayle Reed. A sudden disappearance of an Australian girl, Serena Henderson, in present day brings these three unlikely characters together in their search for the Mary Alice.
Both Roger and Danielle face intimidation from Dahlberg’s cronies for their interest in the Mary Alice. But we’re not just talking about casual Bigfoot sighting fanatics here: Danielle, Roger, and Carlos are all motivated to find the Mary Alice and all for different reasons, which are revealed more thoroughly towards the end of the book.
Developing teen readers might find the slow reveals and the large cast of characters frustrating to track and watch, particularly because the story skips around from character to character and the major villain Dahlberg doesn’t show up until halfway through the story. Readers who are used to simple good vs. evil fights will find this story convoluted. However, readers are provided with small chapter headings that state the location of the scene, which helps comprehension.
Not only is the plot more sophisticated than most childrens’ and young teen graphic novels, the artwork is more sophisticated, too. I loved how Fred Fordham contrasted the muted palette of the sea with occasional bright red and yellow backgrounds to reflect characters’ inner anger and fear. Fordham proved himself as a flexible artist and illustrator, going back and forth between empty and searching seascapes that reflected the loneliness and frustrations of the characters on board the Mary Alice and the kick-butt fights between Dahlberg and the other searchers.
My one major critique is that John Blake comes across as a do-all. He has the wits and technical know-how of Batman and the agility of Spider-Man, and he isn’t even a superhero. It’s a little more frustrating to watch John take center stage (yes, I know he’s in the title of the book, but still) when Serena and Danielle seemed to have much more interesting talents. Serena showed herself to be exceptionally loyal but was often forced down deck (literally and figuratively) when the boys fought and Danielle doesn’t take no for an answer. I want to see these characters kick Dahlberg where it hurts—maybe they discover a way to compromise his associates? Maybe they exploit a technical glitch in the apparator? Maybe they pick up a machine gun and use it? There are so many possibilities for these characters.
The publisher is pitching The Adventures of John Blake for grades 3-7 middle grades audience. Due to the sophisticated nature of the story and the realistic violence of some of the scenes, including Roger’s use of a machine gun in a scene early on, I’d recommend this to grades 6-12 or grades 7-12. This series could become an anchor of a teen graphic novel collection.
The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship
by Philip Pullman
Art by Fred Fordham
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12