Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand is simply one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in a long time. Adapted from a screenplay written in the late 60s/early 70s by Jim Henson and lifelong writing partner Jerry Juhl, Tale of Sand is dark, funny, bizarre and touching, often all at once. Ramon K. Perez has managed to take the daunting task of adapting a screenplay by one of cinema’s greatest visual storytellers, and transformed it into a loving tribute to Jim Henson’s early, experimental works while managing to make it fully his own. I absolutely adored everything about this book.
Before I continue, I will offer this small caveat: I am a massive Jim Henson fan. The man is one of the few true geniuses of the past century, a personal creative hero, and there is not a single room in my house (bathrooms exempted) that doesn’t have some piece of Henson/Muppet memorabilia in it. However, before you claim that that makes me predisposed to like this, keep in mind that like any intense fan, it also makes me predisposed to hate it if it's not good enough. But it very much is.
With that out of the way, let me say this: whether you’re a massive fan like me or not, this book is still a wonderfully unique, funky little adventure.
Tale of Sand is the story of Mac, a stocky Everyman, who arrives in a strange little town in the middle of a strange desert, and is sent on some sort of race across the desert by a benevolent sheriff. He’s given a backpack containing a pistol, a stop sign, a sound effects record and a map. He is told that the map lies. He’s given a ten minute head start and the town goes wild with joy as he takes off running. From this point, the story plays out like a surreal, darkly comedic version of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, with Mac is pursued by a strange, dapper man through all sorts of odd locales in an increasingly bizarre desert. Mac crashes through film sets, golf courses and a TARDIS-like nightclub contained in a broken down outhouse. There is very little rhyme or reason to what’s going on, and it projects a palpable sense of his terror and confusion to the reader. The whole piece is fueled by the dream logic of Henson’s experimental work in the 60s, drawing tonally from his short films Timepiece and The Cube (Both wonderful if you can track them down). The original screenplay was written right around the time Henson was hired to work on Sesame Street, and is in many ways the last great stand of young Jim Henson, experimental filmmaker. The book reflects that fact that, puppets aside, Henson was an incredibly gifted visual storyteller, and with Juhl there to provide the voice they were among the greatest creative teams of the 1960s and 70s. Henson would occasionally return to more odd, clearly personal works over the years (Dark Crystal, etc), but for the rest of his life the priority was those bears and pigs and chickens and things. Had Tale of Sand been made it could have very easily been his masterwork, and this book manages to be the closest approximation of the film we’re likely ever to get.
The book opens with a note taken directly from Henson and Juhl’s script, noting among other things, that “The mood of the photography is sometimes frighteningly realistic.” Perez executes this direction to a T, and while his art never enters the realm of photorealism, and has a very stylized, cartoonish look, he emphasizes the small, human moments over the big, crazy set pieces. Dream logic is often difficult to make emotionally compelling, but Perez manages to have it all make a bizarre sort of sense. We never know quite why this is happening, but it’s so compelling that you don’t really care. His artwork is beautiful, and ranges from dark and gritty to loud and funny, and neither tone completely takes over, leaving you feeling just a little bit unsettled the entire time. There was very little dialog in Henson/Juhl’s screenplay, and Perez uses this to his advantage as well essentially serving as the “director,” making sure every emotional nuance plays loud and clear. The funny parts are funny, the scary parts are scary, and the weird parts are really really weird. One of my favorite touches, aside from a small cameo by Henson and Juhl, was an incredibly subtle one I didn’t notice until towards the end of the book: A large majority of the book is framed in widescreen. Yes, there are some vertical panels, and a few square ones, but most of the book is played out in a very cinematic frame. Reading it, I could very clearly see it being done on film. That, actually, is one of the advantages of the graphic novel format: This film would have been astonishingly expensive. Perez has managed to realize the screenplay more truthfully than perhaps Henson himself would have been able to, and that’s a hell of an achievement.
Perhaps my favorite moment in all of Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand isn’t even contained in the story. When you open the book, the inside cover is a photo of a young Jim Henson on a film set in the 1960’s, while his “actors”, drawn by Perez, mill about, reading their scripts and smoking cigarettes. This image gave me chills. Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand is a perfect marriage of the world of cinema and the world of graphic novels, perfectly realized by three of the greats.
TL;DR Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand is an adaptation of Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl’s unproduced screenplay. It’s a strange, dreamlike adventure that manages to both pay tribute to Henson and Juhl’s vision while working perfectly as an illustrated story. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Jim Henson's Tale of Sand is an adaptation of the lost screenplay by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, as realized by Ramon K. Perez. It is published by Archaia. You can buy it now in comic shops and bookstores everywhere or support Spandexless by purchasing it from our Amazon web store.
A review PDF of Tale of Sand was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.
Brandon Beck is a writer/director/improviser living in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently working towards an MFA in TV Writing/Producing at the TV Writer’s Studio at Long Island University with the hopes of one day bending the entertainment industry to his nefarious will. He is more than happy to talk to you about Phish. You can see inside his mind by finding him on Tumblr or following him at @hellyesbrandon.