The Tinderbox by Damien Jay

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The Tinderbox
By Damien Jay [Adapted from a story by Hans Christian Andersen]


In modern America, the word “fairytale” has taken on an almost derisive meaning, immediately evoking images chalk full of genre cliché and the manner of unrealistic life expectations that come coupled with habitually happy endings. Those whose familiarity with the style extends beyond 20th century Hollywood adaptations, however, know that these stories have roots that run much deeper, to tales with far darker overtones, more graphic imagery, and messages steeped in moral ambiguity than the Disney remakes so central to our childhood memories have ever led on.

The pure, unhomogenized works of The Brothers Grimm are oft pointed to as an example of this phenomenon. Those stories that have found their way into the latter half of the 20th century and beyond, relatively intact, such as Hansel and Gretel, broach topics that now seem about as far from children’s lit as imaginable when juxtaposed by their works best known through their Disney iterations. As Damien Jay happily demonstrates in his mini-comic adaptation of The Tinderbox, many of the same things can be said about the works of Hans Christian Andersen.

For all those not exposed to the story early in life, reading The Tinderbox can prove a downright surreal experience. It’s a tale of a morally ambiguous hero, random acts of violence, and, of course, three tiny dogs with increasingly disproportionate sets of eyes. When the story’s bizarre set of plotpoints have finally finished unfolding, Andersen has put forth none of the concise morals that define works like The Ugly Duckling.

In fact, any attempts to read one into the story in a modern context will likely ultimately prove troubling. Our protagonist is rewarded after committing various acts, which, in a contemporary children’s tale would have easily pegged him as a villain. His ultimate redemption occurs by way of a similar violence that doomed him in the first place. His reward for such an act is the monarchy and the hand of the fair queen.

Jay, much to his credit, opts to keep such troubling aspects intact. In fact, if anything, the artist has embraced such elements, as in an extended action panel, in which the bloodspattered face of a recently beheaded witch flies into the foreground. Of course the artist’s work maintains a largely cartoony feel throughout, so even at its most graphic, the imagery never embraces the story’s full disturbing potential. If anything, Jay’s work adds a level of humor not entirely present in Andersen’s work. Colored with thick globs of paint, and nary a black dividing line in sight, the artist seems content to let both the author and the imagery to speak for themselves.

The hand silkscreened cover rounds out the package, a beautiful book and a unique and welcome remainder that happily ever after is never as easy as it sounds.

–Brian Heater

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