Graphic novels are baffling things. They can't be read like prose, nor can they be reviewed by it. The process of reading them is absurdly fast, yet shockingly slow. Snow White by Matt Phelan is no exception.
I have a fair confession to make: I have no idea what I am doing. I'm unsure as to whether or not Snow White's plot should be docked for a simplified antagonist. I can't begin to contemplate whether or not aesthetics and the style of art should influence my opinion of the story, or the work overall. And, most of all, I am uncertain of my ability to articulate my thoughts on this book properly. I don't have much experience as a critic of graphic novels.
Snow White by Matt Phelan conjures up that same sense of uncertainty, just in the way that it is told. By far, Phelan's interpretation is the closest to the original that I've ever read. Even so, it has a different, darker feeling that plays with your memories of the fairy-tale. Recognizable and unrecognizable, fascinatingly at the same time.
The summary, boasting of "showcasing the Depression Era's cultural dynamism & vivid personalities," undoubtedly falls into inaccuracy, but not in the complete-disappointment manner, either. While readers are told to expect a vivid, setting-focused story, Snow White turns out to be exactly the opposite, using the setting of late twenties' New York City as more of a background than anything else. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as it is shown later in the graphic novel, but it's certainly misleading, to say the least.
The truth of the matter is that while the idea of fairy tales re-occurring in particularly prettily-remembered points of history is captivating, the extreme use of the setting and promised creative links to history just weren't there.
However, I'm tempted to say that the use of a somewhat passive setting almost makes up for it. You do indeed get some semblance of a feel for the New York of almost a hundred years ago, even if it is only in passing. Phelan's success in this novel is directly linked to how his mind conjured up the idea. This is probably just because of the nature of the story, but the storyline of Snow White just works in this era, almost as fittingly and naturally as the story itself progresses.
It just makes sense to watch the new band of dwarves venture through New York City; it makes sense for Samantha (Snow) White to have pranced through Central Park in the winter as a child; it makes sense for the evil stepmother (though the characterization was a bit weak) to be some sort of performer, in an era of trumpets and sequins and low-waist dresses.
As a visual storyteller, Phelan is given the unique opportunity to elaborate by literally putting a picture in his readers' minds. This isn't always fully used--perhaps for the purposes of a metaphorical flow or a distaste for cluttering on the page--but when it is, the results are quite impressive.
For example, there are a few scenes where he draws streets and buildings in full detail, all of which do more immersion than anything else. Just those few scenes successfully set the mood for most all those who follow, and though Snow's face pops up more often than the setting, it's impossible not to focus on the latter.
However, there is a trade-off to graphic novels, and it all leads back to the details as well. There were points where everything faded into black, leaving only a character's face, or their hands, and though shots like that can certainly be powerful, they are a little too abundant in Snow White, where the first third of the novel is too simplistic to establish itself. Where there is not prose to create imagery, images alone must do the task, and if they're mostly dark backgrounds and pauses on the faces of characters, the story has a good chance of getting lost.
In fact, for a decent portion, it did. The beginning of the graphic novel doesn't look quite the way it must. A few chapters, long ones, at that, completely lack the title character, and instead focus on Phelan's re-incarnation of the evil stepmother, who truly isn't all that interesting.
Granted, she was sort of a Mary Sue villain type from the moment she first appeared in the Grimm version, but there was an opportunity to give her depth, and Phelan didn't take it.
Though I'd be loathe to not mention how easily the end can win a reader over. As the story comes to its own conflict, the writing and the emotional intensify rise and burst quite satisfyingly.
All things considered, Snow White is exactly what it says on the tin. It's all about feel; the feel of the 20's, the feel of fairy tales, the feel of watercolor drawings in black and white with (admittedly well-placed) hints of red.
Plelan's creation is basically a reboot, not a retelling, not a reworking, just Snow White. It's easy to be disappointed, but it's also possible to to enjoy it for what it does contribute.