“As the nineteenth century wound down, a public inspired by the novel Around the World in Eighty Days clamored for intrepid adventure. The challenge of circumnavigating the globe as no one ever had before—a feat assuring fame if not fortune—attracted the fearless in droves. Three hardy spirits stayed the course: In 1884, former miner Thomas Stevens made the journey on a bicycle, the kind with a big front wheel. In 1889, pioneer reporter Nellie Bly embarked on a global race against time that assumed the heights of spectacle, ushering in the age of the American celebrity. And in 1895, retired sea captain Joshua Slocum quietly set sail on a thirty-six-foot sloop, braving pirates and treacherous seas to become the first person to sail around the world alone. With cinematic pacing and deft, expressive art, acclaimed graphic novelist Matt Phelan weaves a trio of epic journeys into a single bold tale of three visionaries who set their sights on nothing short of the world.”
I may shudder at the rampant and unflattering stereotyping that runs unchecked through the 1956 film adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days now, but when my nine-year-old self watched it, fascination was the word of the day. Everything – from the concept to the modes of transportation to the name Phileas Fogg – tugged at my budding sense of adventure. And as I watched David Niven trade his top hat for a pith helmet, wanderlust coursed through my veins. To say, then, that the predominant appeal of Matt Phelan’s Around the World was the fact that it drew on Verne’s classic for inspiration, using it as a leaping-off point for his tale of three real-life intrepid globetrotters, would be completely accurate. And thank goodness that was the case, because I was delighted by every page of Phelan’s graphic novel.
Of the three world-travelers Phelan chronicles in the book, Nellie Bly’s story was the only one I knew something of beforehand. At some point during my middle grade years, I was reading a story and stumbled on her name. Intrigued, I made a point of sketching in some of the details of her life, which included her decision to challenge Fogg’s fictional record. Bly could have been the model for all of the plucky, boundary-breaking heroines that followed in her footsteps, and Around the World concisely portrays her if-you-want-to-do-it-you-can attitude. And, really, that’s one of the best things about the book: It provides enough information on each of the three to compose a complete picture while poking the reader’s curiosity, making further reading a welcome prospect. (Even for someone like me who steers clear of non-fiction. That Phelan seamlessly utilized the written – and in all three cases published – records of Stevens, Bly and Slocum went a long way towards whetting my appetite for more.)
As for Stevens and Slocum – both of whom I knew nothing about prior to reading this book – they were perfect bookends for Bly (chronologically and otherwise). Stevens’s story was rich with humor; it was light-hearted and filled with the same kind of hope, sense of wonder and pride early attempts at progress must surely have inspired in individuals seeing things like the bicycle for the first time. And Slocum, well, his was a darker story, touched by a bit of melancholy and loss, and what an ending!
Phelan struck a perfect balance between telling the story and letting it unfold visually through simple but effective drawings. And that humor I mentioned earlier? A lot of it manifested in the artwork. (Click on the image to the right for a hint of what I mean by that.) I chuckled outright at several points during my reading (mostly at poor Thomas Stevens and his fellow bicycle aficionados expense.)
Starting with the dark mauve front page and going straight through to the artfully framed author’s note and bibliography at the end, the book’s presentation was wonderfully done. Just…lovely.
It may have only taken me an hour to read Around the World, but I spent several after picking it back up, flipping through to enjoy the art, and imagining what it must have been like to actually be these people, literally taking on the world. Overall, a highly enjoyable, well-done book that would no doubt appeal to a wide (age) range of readers.