Highly portentous goofiness.
Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s “Danger and Other Unknown Risks” (Penguin) is just the verbal irony necessary for us to magic our way through these modern (end)times.
By Ryan North and Erica Henderson. Illustrated by Erica Henderson.
A twisty, spellbinding adventure about a girl and her dog who want to save the world, “Danger and Other Unknown Risks” is the highly anticipated YA graphic novel debut from Eisner Award-winning and New York Times bestselling creators Ryan North and Erica Henderson.
The “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” team of North and Henderson has already become a favorite in comics… and in my household. Lately, North’s Marvel writing (“Fantastic Four” “Secret Invasion”) has felt like a garden of ideas in an aging, repetitive house. As both artist and co-writer, Henderson’s storytelling encapsulates comics wit spanning from Windor McCay to Rachel Smythe: clever, clear, incandescent.
The two creators reunite in “Danger and Other Unknown Risks,” an original graphic novel that ventures with the confidence of two well-acquainted travelers hazarding a great frontier. In interviews, North admitted only figuring out midway through the creation process that the publisher meant the book to target young readers. Happy accident. In truth, it’s for us all.
The fun, adventurous romp follows young Marguerite de Pruitt, raised into her destiny as The Chosen One to save humankind, accompanied by loyal husky hound Daisy— who talks!
From the jump, magic is afoot: cultists, a Monkey’s Paw, Latinate spells, runes, unicorns… and doom. But also, remnants of our everyday wonders: emptied big box stores, flightless airplanes, lawn chairs surrounded by overgrown flora.
Marguerite’s crunchy Uncle Bernard is our first wise mentor to a world where “for the first fifty years of his life, he was prepared for the end times to come… But death didn’t come from above. It came from all around. And not all at once.”
North and Henderson’s premise for apocalypse is quickly and off-handedly dispensed: Remember Y2K, the computer-flub-turned-momentary-panic-then-harmless-false-alarm? In Marguerite’s world, the millenium’s turn actually DID bring about something cataclysmic: the activation of MAGIC around the world, causing a shutdown of electronics everywhere, throwing civilization into chaos.
As it turns out, Uncle Bernard himself holds onto some powerful magic amid the bunker-like existence he’s carved out in this survivalist world… and he knows a thing or two about the future, too. Some of this he selectively imparts on his niece Marguerite, who stumbles through her apprenticeship in spell-casting but nonetheless embraces her Chosen One calling. Daisy the dog is the perfect “mage’s best friend” through Marguerite’s perilous journey, where we meet them mid-action.
Here’s where Henderson and North being well-practiced storytellers in the economy of comics — have you seen how much story and jokes they packed into 22 pages of “Squirrel Girl”?– holds serve in the graphic novel format. Too many YA OGNs err either on the side of overexplaining or underexplaining the particular rules and stakes or the mores and mechanisms of a story’s world, as if they were the first to propose such departures, and not one of seven million such speculative universes.
These creators waste no time, and they pack so much fun and intrigue in quick set pieces, the stakes never feel like homework. While escaping dangers and risks known and unknown, Marguerite and Daisy befriend Jacin, a new friend from an old time. Yes, time-travel winds its way in. So do Toads, magical farms, and travel chainsaws.
The net result is a quirky yet satisfying read, even if the plot’s twists and turns won’t feel startlingly new for seasoned readers. Nor is “Danger” as funny as some of North’s or Henderson’s other works, at least in volume of jokes for jokes’ sake. In fact, though the art and story are suffused with wit, the portions of humor seem finely measured so as to illuminate rather than to deflect the questions contemplated by “Danger and Other Unknown Risks.”
Questions? Contemplation? I couldn’t avoid them, while I read the book side-by-side with my pre-teen daughter. Those existential crises of late modernity, our inexorable plummeting toward disaster and division, our due reprisals for our amok excesses… how in the heck do we expect our kids to save us all?Continued below
There’s almost an anxiousness in our storytelling these days, where we can’t hide our need for inspiration and courage, but we’re also guiltily aware that we’ve plunged our planet to the place where it desperately needs saving… and that’s a damn cruel burden we’ve tied around our kids’ necks. I can’t help but wonder if North and Henderson aren’t teasingly and liberatingly tickling those contradictions in us. (The internet informs me that Ryan North is my exact same age. And apparently, one whole foot taller than me.)
Yes, we could live with more climate cautionary tales and representational role model biographies. But we sure do need some absurdity to survive all this solemnity! You know what made Everything Everywhere All At Once so resonant to my experience as an Asian-American immigrant? Not just the intergenerational tensions, the struggle for survival, or the kung fu acrobatics. It was the absurdity— the crazy clash of psychotically self-serious opposing realities, the fast-cut multiverses of infinite possibilities, the everything bagel of it all.
Our world, terrifyingly, feels more and more like this. Dangers multiplying logarithmically, risks uncountable. How do we get through? We need to just hold on to our determination, and to our husky dog companions. Laughing in the face of danger all the way.
North and Henderson’s book is an incantation for hope.