Snow White is a peculiar retelling of the fairy tale. I’m not familiar with most Snow White versions, not Grimm, not Disney, so I don’t know if they hit the same emotional beats Matt Phelan does in this one. I sort of doubt it because what the ones he hits are so tied to the setting–New York City soon after the stock market crash. Phelan uses dialogue sparingly. It’s more about how Snow White looks, whether it’s Samantha (Snow) White as a young child playing with her mother before tragedy strikes, the introduction of her stepmother–a Ziegfield girl, a truly terrifying chase through Hooverville, or Snow’s protectors, a youth gang called the Seven. They refuse to tell her their names, which eventually leads to a couple beautiful moments. All of the emotional potency of these scenes are because of Phelan’s approach to the narrative, the way he conveys movement between panels, the way he paces out the action. He puts a lot of work into Snow White, even in the panels where his ink washes are overpowering.
Phelan does a lot with the visual setting–art deco, New York in the thirties, the clothing, the bustling streets, the occasional grandiosity (the introduction of the wicked stepmother is just awesome)–but the characters are where it’s at. Snow and the Seven, her often silent interactions with these orphaned boys. The wicked stepmother and her insane scheming. The Huntsman character gets a great chapter to himself, told without dialogue. Phelan finds the beauty in the wretchedness of the Great Depression without ever lessening that wretchedness. It’s very precisely, very seriously executed.
He splits the graphic novel into short chapters; they can run five pages, they can run twenty. There’s a quick pace to the comic, Phelan’s quite good at drawing the reader’s attention to the salient elements in each panel and how they relate to the panels before and after. The period detail isn’t exactly background, but his focus is always on the character, whether it’s the good ones or the bad. It’s almost a cinematic pacing, especially since there’s so little dialogue in the book.
It is an adaptation so there are some set plot points he has to hit. He gets a lot out of them, but they’re not where Snow White hits its highest notes. It’s no longer a story about a princess on the run from her wicked stepmother, it’s a story about trying to survive the Depression and retain one’s humanity. It’s about trying to find beauty where it doesn’t seem like there could be any beauty.
Phelan’s work is technically stellar. The aforementioned chase scene is nothing compared to the final action sequence, where he goes very, very big to resolve some loose ends. There’s such a gentleness to the book as well; Phelan finds the small, human moments in his story and emphasizes them. He never seems rushed, never seems erratic, but always gets right to the deepest part of a moment. It’s fantastic.
The only feasible complaint with Snow White is its physical size–Phelan’s art begs for enormous pages. It’s a wonderful book.
Writer and artist, Matt Phelan; publisher, Candlewick Press.