Graphic Novel Review: “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky”

Kwame Mbalia’s dazzling story of Tristan Strong returns to book format in a stunning visual treatment by Robert Venditti with illustrations by Olivia Stephens. The graphic novel is shorter than the original text, but readers will be amazed by the visual pairings with Mbalia’s masterful story.

Tristan Strong is on his way to his grandparents’ farm for a visit. Getting over the death of his friend Eddie. Tristan is isolated and alone with the only memory of his best friend’s diary. Blaming himself for not being able to save Eddie, Tristan is awakened one night at the farm by a talking doll named Gum Baby, who steals Eddie’s diary.

Pursuing, Tristan catches up with Gum Baby at the farm’s bottle tree, where after breaking one of the bottles, an evil ghostly spirit is released, and Tristan and Gum Baby plunge into another world. Upon awakening, Tristan landed in the world of Alke, where African gods and mythical black heroes exist.

Tristan is impressed by the people he interacts with now, who were characters from stories told by his grandmother. Now, after listening to the likes of John Henry, Brer Fox, and Rabbit, Tristan realizes he’s pierced the sky of their world after smashing the bottle on the tree. Tristan is set on a deadly and dangerous journey as he helps the heroes of folklore save their world and unites with High John, Nyame and others in hopes of negotiating with the god Anansi, who could mend the tear in the sky. Tristan will also learn that he is an anansesem, a storyteller.

The battles will be intense, and with this rectification of his actions and the help of Alke, Tristan could draw a line under the loss of Eddie.

When I first read the original book, I thought Tristan Strong was an amazing tale that would not only inspire readers of all ages, but also inspire older readers to learn more about the story as well as the mythological characters depicted in Mbalia’s prolific work. After reading the graphic novel adaptation, I’m even more convinced that the upcoming TV show for Disney+ should be an adaptation of Tristan Strong punches a hole in the sky.

It’s such an incredible tale that’s beautifully written with themes and characters that everyone will relate to. Not only is the story entertaining, but readers will get a fresher, truer perspective on the characters they know.

One way to rediscover a book you love is to see how someone else adapts it into graphic novel form. Robert Venditti condensed the original story considerably, but he chose the most important bits from the book to help tell the visual story. The story is fast-paced but conveys the heart of the original tale which Mbalia created perfectly.

Olivia Stephens has an incredibly difficult job trying to bring Kwame Mbalia’s lyrics to life in visual format. Stephens not only managed to put a face to the story of Mbalia, from Tristan’s car ride with his grandparents to the first arrival in Alke, Stephens continues to elevate the story with his finely drawn imagery. You feel more for Tristan’s struggle because of the accompanying visuals. His choice of presentation complements Mbalia’s narrative and makes the story even more powerful.

The graphic novel form of Tristan Strong makes a hole in the sky faces two significant challenges to being a faithful representation of the original book. Robert Venditti has to couple the text which requires the removal of a majority of Mbalia’s original work, while at the same time he has to tell the story without losing the heart of the book. Venditti rises to the challenge with his pairing of the story and maintaining the loss Tristan felt when Eddie died. In the original book, readers feel Tristan’s heartache. In the graphic novel, her grief is evident and is on her mind throughout her journey to Alke.

Olivia Stephens gave readers a visual of this fantasy world that captures the heart and emotion of Mbalia’s text. Additionally, Stephens’ ability to change scenery like when Tristan talks to Uncle C and then back into Alke allows readers to embrace the different events happening at the same time. Laura Langston’s incredible use of shifting color scheme and Ariana Maher’s lettering further enhances and expands on the original story.

Tristan Strong makes a hole in the sky is an epic romance with some of the most compelling characters to come to the page of my life. I loved the trilogy, and I can’t wait to rediscover the series in graphic novel form. Fans of the original book should add the graphic novel to their collection, and new readers will enjoy meeting Tristan Strong for the first time through this visual medium.

About Cecil Cobb

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