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Review: Bluffton October 24, 2013

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.

blufftonEven movie stars were once kids who loved playing baseball. And Buster Keaton, star of the silent screen, was no exception. Yes, he created some of the best films of all time, that still show up on Best of… lists over 80 years after they were made. But as a kid, he was more interested in fishing, rigging elaborate pranks and playing ball.

Matt Phelan’s impressive new graphic novel Bluffton introduces us to Keaton through the eyes of Henry, a resident of the small Michigan town where Keaton and his family, along with other vaudeville acts, are spending the summer.  Henry is fascinated with the lives of the performers, listening to tales of travel, hotel disasters, comedy gags and appreciative audiences with awe. But Buster isn’t interested in teaching Henry how to do physical tricks or answering questions about his life on the road.  Over the course of three summers, Henry matures from a wanna-be performer into an appreciative audience member and Buster takes his next steps toward greatness.

The pacing, character development and clarity of theme are what make this middle-grade title stand out from the pack. Phelan includes just enough information about vaudeville, Buster and his fellow performers so that you understand their lives, but keep turning pages to find out what happens to them next. Many panel sequences are wordless, allowing the reader to focus on the precision of the steps to building a fake outhouse, a walk through the amusement park or a juggling act gone wrong. Nothing huge happens–there are no dragons, natural disasters or mysteries to solve. It is Phelan’s meticulous buildup of character details that help us see how a snide comment or talent show gone wrong might be just as devastating to Buster or Henry.

I knew only a little about Keaton before reading this book, but now I intend to watch his movies, and read more about his life and world. Phelan’s book, with it’s finely drawn setting and engaging characters, both real and imaginary, has the power to make the reader want to spend more time with the vaudevillians both on and off their stage.


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