Spines tingled, funny bones tickled

Penny dreadful of Spring-heeled Jack

Philip Pullman:
Spring-heeled Jack
Illustrated by David Mostyn
Puffin 2018 (1989)

From 1837 onwards reports began circulating in London of a terrifying devilish figure who terrorised women: sporting horns he breathed fire and leapt superhuman heights and distances. As is the way with urban legends there were several sightings with conflicting descriptions, even sensationalised accounts in penny dreadfuls, but nobody ever convincingly explained the phenomenon.

In due course Philip Pullman took this enigmatic figure and turned Spring-heeled Jack from a legendary molester to a cartoon crimefighter:

In Victorian times, before Superman and Batman had been heard of, there was another hero who used to go around rescuing people and catching criminals.

With the aid of a sidekick, cartoonist extraordinaire David Mostyn, Pullman tells the story of how Jack comes to the aid of a trio of orphans escaping the nefarious attentions of the orphanage superintendent, his assistant, and Mack the Knife and his gang.

With his experience as an English teacher Pullman specialised in writing school plays and telling entertaining tales based on a variety of traditions and influences, for example Count Karlstein and Clockwork, both heavily indebted to Central European folklore and legends. While harking back to Victorian popular culture in Spring-heeled Jack he also drew on his own childhood imbibing comics, whether about American superheroes or everyday folk in venerable British periodicals, like the Beano or the Dandy, featuring mischievous schoolkids and gauche adults as the butt of jokes.

In choosing David Mostyn as his collaborator Pullman has blended both comic book traditions: Jack as superhero and orphans Rose, Lily and Ned in a world of caricatured authority figures, hapless bystanders, dastardly villains and plucky youngsters. The pages are half conventional text and half graphic novel, speech balloons issuing out of characters’ mouths, a dog acting the part of Tintin’s Snowy, an incidental cat who (like a feline Greek chorus) offers commentary through expressive looks, and even a bug that progresses across the bottom of successive pages in flick book fashion.

It’s all designed to tingle the spines and tickle the funny bones of primary school children — and even a few older, more sophisticated readers too. Do the children ultimately find safety and true solace in a happy ending? Does true love win out? Will a petty criminal find peace with his conscience? Do the truly wicked adults get their just deserts? I’m afraid you’d have to get your own copy to find out.

10 thoughts on “Spines tingled, funny bones tickled

  1. Pullman, understandably, is always best known for his Dark Materials series but I have always enjoyed his stories for slightly younger children also. This one and I Was a Rat were books I often recommended in the school library, they have an appeal for those who may be intimidated by lengthy books but still enjoy a well written story.

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    1. I’ve got I Was A Rat and The Firework-Maker’s Daughter yet to read, the latter recommended a couple of times to me. They are mostly slight reads as far as adults are concerned but perfect for the age group they’re aimed at, which is not to say they lack merit or are not deserving of consideration by the likes of you or me! 🙂

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    1. The Amulet series looks really involved but also involving — and would require both commitment and stamina on my part, virtues which are in short supply for me at the moment! This Pullman title is, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, slight and deliberately rehashes clichés, but it’s great fun nevertheless (despite being a curious concoction). 🙂

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      1. Oh, I believe the fun factor. 😉 Yes, Amulet really does take some commitment. It’s taken some serious library-hunting to find the volumes, which isn’t easy with how long the series is. But Blondie and I BOTH love it–a rarity!–so I’m hoping I can locate the volumes tucked away in various libraries throughout this corner of Wisconsin and journey to all those libraries for the sake of a chapter to the saga…a saga Blondie loves talking about, which makes my heart smile. xxxxxxxxx

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          1. Hee hee! In her way. 🙂 She’s very much a mix of Bo and me–she loves fantasy adventures so long as they involve dogs, but she’s not much for watching them; she prefers Three Stooges and such. She enjoys writing comics as much as she enjoys playing video games.

            In other words: she’s aaaaall her own and I love her for it. xxxxxxxxx

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