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Review of the Day: Apocalypse Taco by Nathan Hale

ApocalypseTacoApocalypse Taco
By Nathan Hale
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
$14.99
ISBN: 978-1-4197-3373-4
Ages 10 and up
On shelves April 2nd

Before I get into the book before me, I need to give you a little history lesson. That’s a bit ironic since author Nathan Hale is best known for his history comics, but bear with me. So I have in my possession a book called The Seduction of the Innocent written by American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, published in 1954. This is the book that almost single-handedly turned the comic book publishing industry on its head. It’s considered infamous today because in the book Wertham makes no bones about the fact that he sincerely believes comics to be a bad influence on kids and a leading cause of juvenile delinquency. His book is widely vilified in today’s pro-comics 21st century, but here’s the deal: Wertham wasn’t wrong about everything. I’ve read the book and the thing that sticks out the most is that Wertham isn’t taking pot-shots at superhero comics or Archie comics half as much as he is horror comics. His point was that kids were getting some pretty perverted stuff. Needles in eyeballs. Some MAJOR racism and sexism (you have to credit Wertham for calling this out, if nothing else). Horror comics of the 50s were sort of marketed to kids and, by using them as examples, the man was able to paint the entire industry with a big comics-are-bad-for-you brush. Not fair, but there it is.

Fast forward to 2019. Comics are flourishing. Sure they still aren’t being published at a rate that meets the voracious demands of our comic-loving kids, but that old stereotype of sequential art rotting your brain is starting to fall by the wayside. Walk into most libraries and you’ll see newspaper comics, nonfiction comics, action adventure comics, dramatic comics, lowbrow comics, highbrow comics, the works! So what won’t you see in a children’s room? Horror comics for kids. It seems that Wertham’s influence casts its long shadow to this day. You can find adult horror comics (and even Neil Gaiman’s had fun with it with titles like, Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire) and YA trucks with it as well, but children’s books? Unless you’re talking about those weak adaptations of Goosebumps stories (and I am not) the pickings are slim. They’re not non-existent, but it would be hard to make a list of the seriously scary stuff.

Which brings us to Nathan Hale. In 2017 Mr. Hale branched out of his “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales” series, writing a standalone science fiction comic called One Trick Pony. An amazing experiment in concise storytelling, Hale managed to eschew complicated world building, while also coming up with a pretty unique post-apocalyptic landscape. In the book, aliens have attacked Earth and stolen most of our technology. When it takes a third act trip to outer space the book makes a sharp right-hand turn into grotesqueries. Something akin to Hieronymus Bosch ala Space Oddity. I remember reading the book and feeling pretty impressed that Hale was able to get away with something quite that psychedelic in a children’s book. Now, it appears, that was just the warm up. Apocalypse Taco is a straight-up horror comic for kids. Gross and intelligent, unpredictable and a bit of a mess, and really, thoroughly enjoyable. Of course you’ll probably only agree if you’re into smart horror in the first place.

It’s Tech Night at the high school and that means an overnight fest of working on the sets for a production of Brigadoon. Middle schoolers Axl and Ivan get to help because their mom’s in charge of the work, but when the chance comes to make a 1:30 AM burger run with sixteen-year-old Sidney, they jump at the chance. They mean to go to McDonalds but when they find a Taco Bear open instead it just makes sense to buy late night munchies there. It’s funny how the discovery that your food has turned into demon squid taco boxes can really dampen your mood. The next thing they know, Axl, Ivan, and Sidney appear to be trapped in a world of loose, gooey copies. Copies of their school. Copies of the streets. Even copies of themselves. It’ll take rescuing a multi-armed grad student to not only get out of this sticky predicament, but to figure out how it all began.

If you’re a kid who likes horror, you generally get it by watching movies on the sly. There are plenty of twelve-year-olds olds out there that have gorged on It, Stranger Things, etc. When they walk into a children’s room in a library they’re going to want horror in their books and they’re generally going to be disappointed. Horror for kids is a tame affair for a reason. The best horror unnerves, but when it comes to children’s book publishing you’re far more likely to find books that truck in the merely spooky. There are, however, exceptions. At first, I wanted to compare Apocalypse Taco not to any children’s comics out there (which are, as I may have mentioned, pretty bereft of horror elements) but to the novel Small Spaces by Katherine Arden. After reading it last year, I was floored by how well it wrapped its horror concepts together. Still, upon further reflection the true companion to this book is, without a doubt, The Nest by Kenneth Oppel. In both cases you have villainous insects. You have a shifting reality where the biological becomes a repository for horror. The tone is a bit different, but that has as much to do with Hale and Oppel’s styles as it does the fact that one is a comic and one a novel. In tandem, they work beautifully. Books to lose sleep over.

The thing that Apocalypse Taco says to me is that Nathan Hale’s “Hazardous Tales” series must make some good money for Amulet Books. How else would the man have had the clout to get something this wildly inventive into the American marketplace? The book reads like a work of catharsis. Hale’s art spins wildly out of control in a beautifully controlled manner (if that makes any sense at all). One minute he’s creating a melting world, and the next it’s all limbs and hands. There are lots of tentacles, and plenty of teeth, and the whole endeavor succeeds in making you feel that you’ve dropped into a particularly gooey Wonderland. Comparisons to Alice wouldn’t be wrong since there is a dreamlike quality to the imaginings, horrific though they be. Only Alice didn’t have to deal with a world being copied by tiny bees. Not that I know of, anyway.

It’s interesting to examine how much of the book consists of diving down, deep deep into something. I’m sure the Freudians would have a field day with this one, but let’s just think about what this means for kids. Lots of books have created underground worlds. City of Ember, the aforementioned Alice, Gregor the Overlander, etc. Hale uses the opportunity to sink and then rise as an excuse to offer our characters some exposition and back-story. When you’re trapped in a car controlled by goo, that’s as good a time as ever to discuss what’s going on. Sometimes when explanations arise in a novel, they don’t live up to the premise. Hale doesn’t suffer from that particular malady. These may not be the simplest answers in the world, but darned if they’re boring.

Just as the character of Kevin in this book can’t quite keep what’s happening to the world under control, so too does Hale have a small problem keeping everything comprehensible in this storyline. Rereadings help, of course, but I don’t think the book benefits from too close a reading. If you’re looking for plot holes, you’ll probably fall into a couple. I had to read and reread to figure out how our heroes got into Copy Cat Land and I’m still puzzling over what it takes to get out of it. There’s also the fact that beneath Copy Cat Land is the Hive of Goop. It’s easy to get the two confused. About the time Kevin says the Hive of Goop was in his brain I was ready to start all over again. Sometimes a novel without a lot of drive is said to not be a “plot forward” book. I’d say this book isn’t necessarily a “linear forward” comic. You can get forward. You will get forward. But there’s going to be a lot of backing and forthing and upping and downing along the way. There’s a weird comfort in the fact that Hale is perfectly aware of this, though. At one point Axl cries out in frustration, “Hang on? Is this an explanation story INSIDE you EXPLANATION STORY?” You gotta respect that.

If you’re going to be technical about it, the horror comics kids were reading in the 1950s weren’t specifically aimed at kids in the first place. But the creators of those comics knew perfectly well that that was who was going to buy them. With that in mind, it’s probably fair to say that until the last few years, horror comics have never been written intentionally with a child audience in mind, and those that have have been fairly so-so. Apocalypse Taco is therefore a wholly new creation in more ways than one. It opens the door for more kid-friendly horror (whether or not you see that as a good thing is up to you, but the 12-year-old me is pumping her fist right now), blows the roof off the competition, and is a great story besides. I mean, it’s got everything! Tooth monsters. School lockers full of goo. Brigadoon. You name it! I wouldn’t hand it to a kid that doesn’t already love the creepy, but for the right kiddo this will be the answer to their sweet twisted nightmares. A lovely dose of insanity for your local library shelves. Who could ask for anything more?

On shelves April 2nd.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Misc:

I suspect that this book has been a long time coming. My evidence? Well, back in 2011, Nathan started a little series on his blog that he called Taco Hell. You can read Part 1 here. Here’s a panel from the series below. Look familiar?

TacoHell

Videos:

How did Nathan Hale come up with this book’s cover? This video says it’s a cover reveal but it is MUCH more than that. I really goes through the process an artist goes through when finding the perfect cover for a book. Ten points for the Garbage Pail Kid typeface reference.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.