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Once Upon a Time Machine Graphic Novel Review

5 min read

Parables of the past and future collide.

What They Say
Fairy tales have fueled our dreams and fired our imaginations for centuries. Step inside a time machine built by a collection of today’s finest storytellers, and enter a range of futures where familiar tales are reimagined in an astonishing variety of styles. Editors Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens bring you the next wave of leading writers and illustrators working alongside superstar creators like Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War), Ryan Ottley (Invincible), Khoi Pham (Daredevil), and Brandon Graham (King City) to deliver a reading experience that will delight generations young and old.

Creative Staff
Editor: Andrew Carl
Producer: Chris Stevens

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
I have a soft spot for short story and graphic novel anthologies. They’re a great way for publishers and creators to exhibit a large number of writers and artists, giving a reader a chance to sample some of their work. It also guarantees the reader that if one story doesn’t grab them, at least one out of the group should.

The theme of Once Upon a Time Machine is fairy tales out of time. The editors have assembled a huge number of contributors and given them a chance to play around with the theme. The original fairy tales and fables are all timeless classics should be familiar to any reader, so the challenge facing the creators is in telling them in a new and exciting way.

The collection begins with a wink and a nod in “1001”, where an aspiring comic artist moves into a publisher just as the comic company is about to be shut down. The art has a pleasant dreamlike look to it with gradients of color washing across the page’s brushwork art. It would have been one of the strongest stories in the collection if it had just ended two pages early, instead of indulging in a cloying wish fulfillment fantasy at the end.

Several of the stories had narrative twists which stood out among the more literal adaptations. “Silver-Hair & the Three Xairs”, a goldilocks spoof with cute cartoony artwork, ends with a grim and hilarious surprise. “The Three Little Pigs” turns into a commentary on the 1% combined with poster style artwork. “Humpty Dumpty” turns into a twisted story of identity and escape, even if the outcome is slightly confusing.

My favorite of the collection was Charles Fetherolf’s “The Crossing,” which is a loose adaptation of the three billy goats gruff. The billy goat in this story is a young woman heading out across the water to a flooded city to recover some much needed medication for a mentor. The story is presented in watercolor with ample white space and flowing colors, with the final page of the likable lead kayaking across the water feeling far removed from much of the material of the collection. I would love to see it expanding to a longer series.

The collection closes with my second favorite of the lot, a truly strange adaptation of Hansel and Gretel called “Bombus and Vespula.” It mixes both unusual art with a bold twist, and I don’t think I’ll ever look at bees quite the same way again after reading it. Interestingly, it has no science fiction or futuristic trappings to it, but is strange enough that it almost doesn’t matter.

Slipped in the space between the comics are stand alone illustrations, many of which aren’t particularly interesting on their own, with a few too many robot women and similar sci-fi trappings. Each story is prefaced with a title page featuring the same illustration, and I would have liked for the artist to have drawn their own title pages. Some of the stories also have subtitles stating the name of the fairy tail their riffing on, which is somewhat unnecessary since it doesn’t really matter if you know how the original tale goes or not.

There are some decidedly weaker spots in the collection, and most of them lie in the adaptations of asian myths. They all seem to run too long, and didn’t really provide a futuristic twist to the story beyond changing the bad guys to aliens or robots. They read much the same as the unaltered tales, with few to no surprises to add to the narrative. People who might not be as familiar with the asian myths the stories are telling probably won’t notice, although I have a feeling the number of comic readers unfamiliar with the territory is shrinking in number.

That leads to my major complaint about many of the titles, they just don’t go far enough out into new territory. The science fiction future worlds they present are often presenting a similar anachronistic retro-future, or they hue too close to the source material with only sci-fi trappings to spice things up. That stereotypical future with flying cars and people wearing oddly current clothes has been done so often that it’s become entirely stale. Although I can see why many artists would go down that path for short stories, it’s easier than attempting to establish something truly unique that might require explanation you don’t have time for. While the lack of diversion from the mainstream was disappointing, I appreciate the wide range of styles the artists brought to the project, especially the large number of watercolor pieces in the mix.

In Summary
The classic parables told in fairy tales mix surprisingly well with warnings of a future out of control which permeate traditional science fiction. There’s a good range of different art styles, mediums, and choices for subject matter on display in this hefty 400 plus page volume, but I recommend reading it in sips rather than gulps. Much of it is treading familiar ground, and rushing through will leave any reader feeling like they’ve seen it all before. While Once Upon a Time Machine isn’t the strongest comic anthology I’ve read this year, it’s still a well put together volume and worthy read for anthology fans.

Grade: B

Age Rating: 13+
Released By: Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: October 23rd, 2012
MSRP: $24.99

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