When Pixar art directors get together to work on a graphic novel series, you have to expect excellent illustrations and story. It seems that the series is actually based on a short film from the two animators from 2014, and that they had intended a feature length film that, to my knowledge, has not been released. There seems too to be a series of short episodes under the title Pig: The Dam Keeper: Poems, released the same year as the first graphic novel. I’ve seen none of the animated pieces.
I am less attracted by the art style of these characters—which is very cartoonish and round—than to the background illustrations, which are soft and subtle and gloriously detailed. It was the description on the book’s flap and then the first few pages of text and illustration that got me to take the first home from the library, though, on a whim.
“Nothing lives in the fog… except memories. Painful memories. They haunt me. Memories of emptiness and loss. The dam holds back the sea of black fog.”
That’s fantastically poetic for a children’s graphic novel and fantastically bleak.
The protagonist Pig becomes the de facto dam keeper after his father, mad with grief, leaves the dam for the world beyond, which is shrouded in a dark and deadly fog. Still a child, Pig tries to balance his responsibilities as dam keeper—a job that the townsfolk have forgotten the importance of—with school and a friendship that he has built with Fox. Fox, more free of responsibility than Pig, has made a new friend in the school bully, Hippo, who frequently targets Pig. Fox tries to bridge her two friends into a trio, but neither Pig nor Hippo is particularly willing to see past first impressions.
An accident at the dam strands the three characters together in the wasteland beyond the town. Lost, they attempt to find their way back home and must rely on each others’ strengths to see them there: Pig’s brains, Hippo’s brawn, and Fox’s kindness.
Fox’s kindness leads them to the blind lizard Van, who promises to help the children home—but first they must retrieve—liberate—Van’s truck from a city very like their own with an even more impressive dam—but in this industry has made the air inside the city walls so foul that the three require their gas masks to breathe.
As they travel across the wasteland in Van’s stolen truck, they find more cities and more civilizations that have found ways to survive in what Pig has always believed to be a dead wasteland.
They narrowly escape being sacrificed by one such civilization to a creature of smoke, which they discover to be a machine with the insignia of the dam keepers on its side.
Throughout all of this, Pig keeps seeing the ghost of his father.
By the end of the second book, the reader begins to see the changes that their adventures have wrought in the three friends manifest. Pig loosens up enough to join his friends in attempting Van’s silly dance. Hippo crushes Van in a hug when they are reunited, and he is friendlier towards Pig.
It must be mentioned too that I appreciate a series with a female and two male protagonists that has no romantic entanglement in sight.
These authors favor a slow reveal through dropped bits of dialogue over a more straightforward and immediate reveal.
A good deal of the storytelling is done through the illustrations. Many of the issues driving the misfortune of the world are only hinted at and must be inferred: pollution, unsafe industrial practices that harm the environment and quality of life, forgetfulness, tribalism, ignorance, deforestation. Some of these I may be incorrectly inferring without the whole story too. There’s a third book that I have yet to read.
I think for this series about child protagonists who find their world turned upside down learning so little so slowly works.
Both of these books ends on a cliffhanger, and given the current state of things, I have not been able to arrange to have the third book in my hands.
The villains in Ru Xu’s Newsprints & Endgames and Kazu Kibushi’s Amulet series are (literally) more concrete than the ones here, but I think there are certainly some thematic similarities between the three, and this may be a new series for those who have enjoyed either. I have read two volumes of each, which is the full story (100%) for Ru Xu’s, two-thirds (about 66%) for Dam Keeper, and only about 22% of Amulet, so my comparisons may yet prove flawed.
Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 1. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2017.
Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 2: World Without Darkness. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2018.
Intended audience: Ages 7-11.
This review is not endorsed by Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi, Tonko House, First Second Books, Roaring Brook Press, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.