Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand
Written by Jim Henson & Jerry Juhl
As Realized by Ramón K. Pérez
Color by Ian Herring and Ramón K. Pérez
Lettering and Font Design by Deron Bennet t Based on the Handwriting of Jim Henson
Cover by Ramón K. Pérez
152 Pages / Color / Hardcover / $29.95 U.S.
If Terry Gilliam were to helm a Road Runner cartoon, the resulting romp might look something like Ramon Perez’s stunning interpretation of Tale of Sand. Based on a screenplay by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, the book is a vibrant and frenetic fever dream, a tribute to a lost champion of imagination and innovation as well as a testament to the vitality of silent storytelling. Hold it in your hands. Relearn the simple pleasures of color.
Presented in a striking yellow hardcover field journal with the same kind of elastic placeholder band Scott Chantler’s Two Generals borrowed from Moleskine, the book impresses from every angle. The endpapers feature black and white photography of Henson at work on a film production, though mixed media collage creates the illusion that the storyteller is interacting with Mac, the book’s protagonist. Given the fascinating story behind the story’s development, subsequent disappearance, rediscovery and loving adaptation, you won’t want to skip the foreword by Karen Folk, longtime historian and Archives Director for the Jim Henson Company. In it, she chronicles the early experiments of Henson, his wife Jane, and collaborators like Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl. This was a time before Muppets, a period during which so many artists were testing the limits of what a camera could do. Of how sound could evoke atmosphere. Of how story could arise out of science and play. It’s a fascinating time in the history of American arts and culture, and even stalwart cult of Kermit fans might be surprised at what Henson was up to back in the 50s and 60s. Even if you’ve heard or seen glimpses of his short films Time Piece or The Cube, the success of Sesame Street meant that the culmination of those more personal works never came to fruition. He’d later focus his energies on more grandiose fantasies like The Dark Crystal, but that specific thread leading back to Time Piece was all but lost. Until today.
It was a script that saw at least three drafts, but nothing besides. Studios didn’t really know what to do with it. That’s famously happened with a lot of major productions and astonishing classics (“How could you pass on Star Wars? I mean…”, but in this case the rejection makes a good deal of sense. Not that the story is poor, but because it really would’ve been a gamble. This deeply personal and surrealist work isn’t exactly built for mass consumption. Had it been filmed, we’re looking at a cult hit at best. The Monkee’s Head springs to mind. In a revisionist version of history, it’s something American Zoetrope might’ve tinkered on. All this to say, don’t enter in expecting Labyrinth. Again, it’s more like a desert sequence from Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas. But what’s that up ahead? A crate tangled in a billowing parachute. Stamped: ACME.
As you may have surmised, I find it difficult to summarize or even pitch Tale of Sand without comparing it to other things. That’s not because it’s derivative, but because the plot is essentially a verb. A man called Mac is on the run in the American southwest. He’s not entirely sure why. There’s a lot of pageantry leading up to his first steps. But soon his velocity becomes wholly necessary, as a man in an eyepatch begins to pursue him across the rugged landscape. Doggedly. Aggressively. But Mac isn’t as cocksure as the Road Runner. There’s real panic here, and that leads to true desperation. Maybe even delusion. The desert is famously maddening, an environment that turns men’s minds to soup. As a fugitive from seemingly all those he encounters, Mac stumbled just shy of mushroom clouds and hurtling linebackers. He dodges bullets and suffers betrayal from blond bombshells.
This is all told almost wordlessly. Perez’s layouts and visual storytelling are astonishingly dynamic. Especially given their wild beauty and the absurdity pervading this epic chase from start to finish. If readers ever find themselves confused, it is no failing on Perez’s part. The clarity of these frenzied sequences is paramount, which is why it’s so impressive that each and every panel is a celebration of line, form and color. As noted in the Foreword, Henson was so enraptured by sound and motion, he actually discarded illustration and painting for film and animation. Perez champions the illusory power of comics, generating movement and even sound out of 2D space. You don’t look at the following spread passively. It envelops you.
Tale of Sand isn’t the farthest-reaching fantasy in Henson’s legacy, but it also isn’t meant to be. It’s a personal expression of an artist’s anxiety and drive. It was designed to be an experimental film. But in the decades since its conception, new avenues have opened. New artists like Ramon Perez have sprung up. And this screenplay may just have found more resonance than it ever could with a simple change of venue and new collaborators. Seems fitting. That’s what rainbow connections are all about.
Story: 4 / Art: 5 / Overall: 4.5
(Out of 5 Stars)
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