Friday, December 4, 2015

REVIEW: The Heading Dog Who Split in Half by Michael Brown & Mat Tait

Above: The cover for The Heading Dog Who Split in Half by Mat Tait.

It has been around 5 years in the making, having appeared in installments online and in various anthologies, but finally writer Michael Brown and artist Mat Tait's The Heading Dog Who Split in Half: Legends and Tall Tales from New Zealand is here!

As the title suggests, this is a collection of local folklore legends: accounts of extraordinary events that are believed to have happened, and tall tales: far-fetched and exaggerated yarns that are so well told and memorable that they have taken hold in the community imagination and been passed on in story or song.

Authors Mat Tait and Michael Brown first met at the Ilam School of Fine Arts at Christchurch University in the late 1980s. They stayed in touch, and after several years of researching and writing about New Zealand folklore, Brown approached Tait with the idea of adapting these tales into graphic form. Over the years Tait had quietly carved out a career as one of our most gifted comics illustrators. His artwork is an immaculate mix of razor-sharp line work and fluid inking. There’s an attention to detail that gives his work a haunting realism, combined with a cartoonist’s eye for composition and humour, that is perfect suited for this subject matter.

When it comes to tall tales you want to be drawn in and convinced that there’s a germ of truth in the telling, and that’s exactly what Brown and Tait have achieved here: these stories will entertain you, unnerve you, and haunt you – in the best possible way.

Above: A page from The Heading Dog Who Split in Half, artwork by Mat Tait.

There’s the title yarn, The Heading Dog Who Split in Half, a legend from the MacKenzie high country of Canterbury, about a heading dog that was so fast at mustering that one day it hit a half buried fencing standard at such speed that it was split in two. It’s owner puts the two halves back together and it speeds off and completes the job. Only once it returns does the owner see that it is grotesquely joined with one half the wrong way up! Captured in freakish detail by Tait's artwork, on paper it's a tale so vivid it leads you to wonder - what grain of truth could have given rise to this outlandish fantasy? 

And that's where the Additional Notes section at the back of the book comes in, providing the sources for the stories and comparisons to other well known legends from around the world. In this case, the Heading Dog comes from a rich vein of mythological carved dogs, that have appeared in Native American tales and similar animals like the reversible hare that appears in The Adventures of Baron Munchhassen. This added context greatly enhances the reading experience, inviting you to go deeper into each story if you wish to learn more about the origins if these fascinating yarns.

Above: A page from The Phantom Canoe, artwork by Mat Tait.

A book on local legends wouldn't be complete without a great ghost story, and this one contains a doozy in the form of The Phantom Canoe. It was sighted on Lake Tarawera in 1886, just a few weeks prior to the eruption of Mt Tarawera. A boat of tourists and local maori led by Te Paea Hinerangi (a well known local guide) who described the war canoe as been manned by warriors with the heads of dogs, and the illustration of them here is just chilling – a close encounter with spirits on the eve of apocalyptic destruction.

This story is significant as it is an example of a shared supernatural occurance witnessed by both Maori and Pakeha, suggesting that the spirit world of myth was not as far removed from their reality as the calonial settlers may have believed, and both cultures may still have something to fear from the mysterious and strange land of New Zealand.

Above: A page from A Tale of Old Waihiartwork by Mat Tait.

Other yarns are more humourous, like A Tale of Old Waihi, a bragging story told to out-of-towners featuring their gargantuan Crayfish – and its many uses. For example, you can use it’s eyes for bowling balls, claws for pick axes, add wheels to it’s tale for a baby pram and the shell can be used for an outside dunny(!). There's also an illustrated sea shanty in the form of Ranzo, Boys, Ranzo!, and the darkly gothic tragedy of Dunedin's Legend of Tunnel Beach.

Published by Potton & Burton in an oversized format on thick unprocessed paper, it's a real treat to turn the page an enjoy the large lavish artwork in inky black & white as always intended. Combining their considerable storytelling skills, Brown and Tait have produced a truly essential New Zealand graphic novel - that deserves a spot on every local bookshelf, where it will haunt and entertain readers of all ages for years to come.

You can also listen to my audio review of The Heading Dog Who Split in Half on Radio NZ Nights HERE. For more information you can also visit their website, Old Weird New Zealand HERE.

The Heading Dog Who Split in Half: Legends and Tall Tales from New Zealand
Michael Brown & Mat Tait
ISBN: 9781927213575
$39.99 NZ

- AK!

No comments:

Post a Comment