In the Neighborhood: Charles Hatfield Reviews THE CARDBOARD KINGDOM: ROAR OF THE BEAST by Chad Sell, et al.

The recently released The Cardboard Kingdom: Roar of the Beast is that rare sequel that outshines its original, 2018’s The Cardboard Kingdom. Both books are middle-grade graphic novels drawn and co-written by Chad Sell, yet they are also collaborative experiments involving a double-handful of writers—which only makes the shared strength of the two volumes that much more impressive. In fact, the whole creative team from the first book has returned for the second (save writer Kris Moore, who sadly passed away before the first volume came out). 

The first Cardboard Kingdom sets up the premise of a neighborhood full of imaginative, spirited kids, about a score of them, who turn their free time into a nonstop role-playing adventure. Divvied up into chapters focusing on different characters or teams, the first book amounts to an episodic gathering of tales that, taken together, represent (as I wrote in a KinderComics review in 2018) a paean to shared creative play, a celebration of friendly collaboration off as well as on the page. Also, and I think not coincidentally, The Cardboard Kingdom celebrates queer self-fashioning, with gutsy yet delicately handled treatments of implicitly gay, trans, and genderqueer identification. These things happen in community, not in isolation. At the time, I observed that the book’s most obvious lesson is for grownups and has to do with understanding children’s imaginative explorations without anxiously rushing to judgment. Since then, Sell, a busy, prolific artist, has done the Eisner-nominated Doodleville (2020), a solo-authored graphic novel that also exults in the idea of shared creativity (in it, drawings come to life). Now he has returned with Roar of the Beast, in the company of cowriters Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, David DeMeo, Jay Fuller-Ng, Cloud Jacobs, Barbara Perez Marquez, Molly Muldoon, and Katie Schenkel.

Roar improves on its predecessor, which I quite liked. If perhaps it doesn’t stand on its own as well, ironically it holds together better as a novel. Back in 2018, I observed that the first book “works as an anthology of short stories and vignettes” even as it builds to a finish. Roar of the Beast, which is less episodic and more focused on a common crisis, feels novelistic and tightly wound. Yet it is still the joint work of ten cowriters, each returning to their featured character or characters from the first book and taking things up where they left off. The sprawling cast and their complex interrelationships might, just might, confuse a new reader—but, on the other hand, the action in the neighborhood feels unforced and the plot is a well-tooled engine where everything turns over, just so.

Interestingly, Roar of the Beast admits that a child’s imaginings can be a source of anxiety as well as affirmation. The kids of the Cardboard Kingdom have superpowered alter egos based upon their own fierce imaginings (the book cuts back and forth seamlessly between different identities), yet their imaginations do not solve every issue and, in some cases, intensify the problems. The emotional stakes in this second book are high, as one of the gang, Vijay, gets bullied and humiliated by some teens and loses faith in his alter ego—which sets in motion a series of anxious conversations and misapprehensions that result in a spiraling rumor about a monstrous beast threatening the neighborhood. This rumor is not another matter of heroic make-believe, the kind so familiar to the kids; rather, they believe the “beast” may be real. That is, while the idea hovers between the believable and unbelievable, it still inspires real fear. Another one of the gang, Nate, shocked by a seeming glimpse of the monster, takes a nasty fall down a flight of steps and breaks his leg. He then becomes obsessed with trapping the beast. Nate’s friend Miguel and stepbrother Elijah worry about him. Other kids harbor fearful knowledge of “the monster,” and the whole neighborhood seems to vibrate sympathetically with their dread.

At the same time, the hyper-serious Alice, co-proprietor of the Dragon’s Head Inn (the kids’ garage hangout), psychs up for Halloween by planning the most fearsome and terrifying haunted house that she can. Grimly determined as usual, Alice gets angry when the other neighborhood kids show no enthusiasm for being frightened. This leads her to badger and alienate her friends. Thus the story suggests that make-believe can go overboard and that sometimes reassurance and sensitivity are needed in addition to unconstrained imaginative play (a didactic point that distinguishes this book from its predecessor). As this and other plot threads interweave, the various neighborhood kids try to bond with, draw reassurance from, or help one another. The complex plot engages subtle ethical questions about telling, or not telling, your friends everything you know or think you know. So, there is a lot of unspoken anxiety along the way to this book’s happy resolution.

The novel’s many characters are not so much reintroduced for the sake of new readers as taken for granted. Most of them, however, experience some new challenge or change over the course of the story. Some characters have grown: Roy, a neighborhood bully in the first book, has become a trusted member of the gang. Vijay, the first book’s fearsome “Beast King,” lives with anxiety and depression, something his sister Shikha and their friends struggle to address. Elijah takes on new depth: as a child in a blended family, he fears that he has made a mistake that will alienate him from his new stepbrother. Even the bullying teens get humanized in the homestretch (after the neighborhood kids take them down a peg). And, yes, Alice comes around—though in a way that does nothing to dilute her Aliceness. In sum, Roar of the Beast is a character-driven book that braids its vignettes and mini-dramas into a single cohesive tale with a satisfying payoff for many of the players.

New readers may wish to hunt up the first volume so as to get introduced to the neighborhood gang, but the empathetic characterization and Sell’s boisterous cartooning will probably sweep just about any sympathetic reader along. Though the artwork may appear conventional, it’s agreeably punchy and rings like a bell. Assured and energetic, it fluoresces with candy-bright colors and favors comfortably rounded forms (and chunky, user-friendly lettering) to offset jagged outbursts of action and suspense. The layouts shift restlessly from staid grids to (often) manga-esque diagonals, with lots of bleeds and splashes. If Sell leans into the sweet and neotenic, betokening childhood, he also goes in for superheroic dustups and intense reveals. Above all, his cartooning is about delivering emotion clearly. That’s the heart of this book.

Gently didactic, Roar of the Beast doesn’t force its characters to abandon themselves or their imaginings in order to learn lessons. Like the first book, it tacitly accepts that many children will be drawn to violent play and that heroic donnybrooks and monster-fighting are things that kids relish—even when their dark imaginings draw them beyond the edge of fear. Reading it, I was reminded of how my own boyhood fantasies could sometimes raise goose pimples, and my own unchecked imagination made the world seem grand, a bit scary, and in need of heroic intervention. Chad Sell gets this about “make-believe,” and he is building a body of work that honors the explorations of young children with gusto and sensitivity. Somehow, knowing that the kids of the Cardboard Kingdom are engaged in make-believe doesn’t make their heroism any less real.

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