The preface to this debut graphic novel is a series of thumbnails of the friends’ adventures, which turn out to be a song sung by Billy Johnson about himself and his best friend Barrace; a professor of linguistics (who happens to be a duck). The first chapter introduces the two in mid-adventure, trying to escape from a jungle temple with a golden statue. They’re stopped by an angry gorilla, but Billy gets away with an eye from the statue and discovers a map to the “lost Monkey Kingdom.” Barrace is doubtful about this fresh adventure; after all, he’s already taken ten days off from work for this trip, but Billy is adamant and they set off for more adventure.
Through the next chapters, Billy and his duck friend go through a series of wild adventures in his efforts to impress the Explorers League and move from part-time janitor to full-fledged explorer. Unfortunately, although he’s brave and bold and, well, not much else really—things just never work out for him. Hidden cities are destroyed by lava, he loses a cursed ring, and even when he sort of teams up with a competent tomb-thief/lady explorer; he just can’t catch a break. However, Billy’s indomitable enthusiasm rarely wanes and he’s determined to be an explorer, just like his famous parents and his hero, Hal Hardwick. But with mysterious entities and a strange hooded figure dogging his path, does he have a hope of succeeding?
The art is heavily on the cartoon side of comics. Billy is a lanky guy, dressed in a red shirt, tie, and tennis shoes no matter the occasion. He presents as a rather naive young adult, with an almost constant smile and a mop of black hair. Barrace is more mature, holding down a job as a linguistics professor and operating more or less as an adult, although Billy treats him alternately as a friend and a rather dim roommate. Barrace is without expression, a fluffy white blob with a yellow beak. To be fair, ducks are not really made to show emotion and he acts primarily as a foil to Billy’s exuberance. There are only a few human characters in the story, but other than a brief glimpse of Barrace’s students, they all present white. The landscapes vary from bushy green jungles to ominous red volcanoes and dark underground tunnels. There are plenty of gruesome mummies, demons, and monsters, but their cartoon depiction takes away any atmosphere of horror. Billy vigorously waves his sword, Mr. Jabbers, but rarely hits anything except the occasional door or annoying vine, and other than mysterious ectoplasm, there’s no body fluids.
Both the art and storyline make this feel like a kid-friendly wacky adventure, very much in the Saturday cartoon vein, as one nutty situation follows another. However, the overall idea of the Explorers League I consider to be very outdated. Although obviously not set in the real world, hence the existence of magic, a talking duck, etc., this harkens back to the traditional, white, European “explorers” and although this is a popular trope in a variety of middle grade adventures and fantasies, I don’t think it should be. Billy’s hero is a stereotypical muscled white man in khaki and Billy himself spends his time looting graveyards, damaging archeological sites, and stealing artifacts. These places are mostly shown as deserted, with the casual explanation for one that it’s near a volcano. Billy travels to a lost city in a jungle, a medieval-style castle with an underground maze and catacombs, a desert, and what appears to be a pyramid or temple. While there’s no clear use of a specific culture, it’s all vaguely boy-hero-adventure stuff of the early twentieth century, from mummies and hidden temples, to generic hieroglyphs and a mixture of creatures from different legends.
This is more a series of loosely connected adventures without a conclusion than a coherent story. There are innumerable hints of secrets and future adventures, characters introduced who then disappear, and a wild blend of magic, supernatural, and every day occurrences. It is often humorous and the cliff-hanger ending will both frustrate and intrigue readers. However, I would compare this unfavorably to a series like Nico Bravo by Mike Cavallaro, which also has quirky art, wild adventures, and a plethora of mythical characters, but I feel uses fewer stereotypes and is more respectful of the cultures it draws from.
With a wide variety of graphic novels available, and a plethora of adventure and fantasy titles, this is at best an additional title, considering the depiction of non-Western culture as a cartoon fantasy, the lack of diversity, and the trailing plot lines. If future volumes are published, I would be interested in seeing where the story goes and if the background of the setting is filled in more completely, which may redeem the story and resolve some of the issues.
Billy Johnson and His Duck are Explorers
By Mathew New
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)