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the adventures of john blake

9 may 2017

Philip Pullman has apparently been writing a comic called "The Adventures of John Blake" for some time now (why am I always the last to know), and one of his John Blake stories arrives this summer as a graphic novel, drawn by Fred Fordham. "Mystery of the Ghost Ship," the subtitle of this adventure, echoes Pullman's fascinations with mysterious machinery, seafaring, and preadolescents who hold the fate of the world in their hands.

Fordham's panels are full of ships materializing out of fog – sometimes the holographic fog of 21st-century technology, sometimes ghostly ectoplasm, sometimes good old-fashioned pea soup. Much like the ships it's fond of, The Adventures of John Blake looms up in vague outlines and takes shape very suddenly. Eighteen pages in and you're hopelessly confused; 18 pages later and it's like you've been living in this magical-realist universe your whole life.

Our protagonist is Serena, a preteen girl who sets off with her somewhat gormless parents on an attempt to sail a small yacht around the world. Naturally they lose Serena to a rift in space-time, where she fetches up on a ghost ship and befriends the title character, an acrobatic youngster in a stain-resistant red shirt. John Blake is good at throwing things at people and running away, and pretty soon John and Serena are throwing things at a range of sinister flunkies who serve the CIA and the dreaded Dahlberg Corporation. Carlos Dahlberg sells a handheld device that addicts people and bends them to his will – nothing at all like the device I'm writing this review on – and worse yet, he didn't even invent it. Forty years earlier, he'd killed its inventor, a young engineer, a slaying witnessed by John Blake himself. Did I mention that John Blake and his ghost ship travel ceaselessly through time?

The fates, Pullman, and Fordham conspire to assemble Serena, John Blake, Dahlberg, the Mary Alice, and various 21st-century characters who are looking for some or all of them in San Francisco Bay in the present day, where they proceed to duke it out. It's a good yarn, and at a little over 150 pages, leaves plenty of loose ends for a series of further Adventures to come.

Pullman, Philip. The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship. Illustrated by Fred Fordham. New York: Graphix [Scholastic], 2017.