Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Colleen Doran
Letters: Todd Klein
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
A review by Stephanie Pouliotte
In 1993, Neil Gaiman wrote Troll Bridge for an anthology of children’s fairy tales reimagined by acclaimed fantasists called Snow White, Blood Red. Gaiman’s short story was an adaptation of the Three Billy Goats Gruff with a twist of the dark and disturbing, and it earned a nomination for a 1994 World Fantasy Award. I came across Troll Bridge in his collection of short fictions Smoke and Mirrors and was immediately struck by how deeply disquieting a children’s story could become. A tragic coming-of-age about childhood innocence and regret, Troll Bridge is a tale that unexpectedly haunts you. Unlike other graphic novel adaptations, Colleen Doran does much more that just illustrate Gaiman’s original story. In her soft pencils and lushly detailed illustrations reminiscent of a children’s twisted fairy tale, Doran adds nuance to the narrator’s unsettling journey into adulthood and elevates the emotional beats of Gaiman’s prose.
On a bright summer day a young boy named Jack takes an unfamiliar path along the English countryside and discovers an abandoned railway bridge. Underneath it lives a hideous troll who would like nothing more than to eat Jack’s life. Cunningly, Jack tells him that he hasn’t lived enough yet to be a very satisfying meal and convinces the troll to let him leave, promising to return and forfeit his life when he’s older. As he reaches manhood, Jack somehow strays down the same unfamiliar path, to the bridge and the troll twice more, each time filled with more regret and disappointment at the life he’s led.
You can find roots to folklore, myths, and fairy tales in much of Gaiman’s work, and when retelling them he often explores the darker side of story aspects that we as readers take for granted. After all, not all fairy tales have a happily ever after. In the original tale, the billy goats trick the troll by convincing him to wait for the next, larger brother to cross the bridge to get a bigger meal. Jack proposes similar bargains to save his life, even offering up his own sister to be devoured in his place — though the troll is quite clever and isn’t fooled.
When I read this passage in prose, Jack simply came off as a cunning child who, not unlike the billy goats, tries to outsmart the troll with an innocuous lie. But in Doran’s adaptation, she reveals Jack’s unnervingly mischievous side in these panels. What I originally took as a simple ruse was now laced with something morbid and sinister, as Jack’s darker personality surfaces a bit earlier in the plot and tightens the progression of his character. Throughout the story Doran emphasizes particular beats with her evocative artwork, reinforcing the subtlety of Gaiman’s writing with a style she painstakingly crafted over the five years she worked on Troll Bridge in between other projects.
Doran’s illustrations strikingly reflect the character reversal that occurs in the story, beginning in a daylight fairyland bursting with vivid colours that turns into a nightmarish and pallor existence filled with regret. Jack becomes increasingly disillusioned as he realizes he isn’t as innocent as he once believed. As he changes, so does the world around him, becoming darker and shapeless and dull. The dreams he had as a child proved unfulfilling, and with each questionable decision he makes he finds that there are less and less reasons to continue deceiving the troll. Doran’s hauntingly ethereal artwork adds new depth to Jack’s transformation, contrasting it poignantly with the story of the monstrous troll, who is at once terrifying and sympathetic. In the final pages, she infuses fear and intimacy in a perturbing conclusion that prickles the reader with a lingering chill.
Check it out! Sometimes graphic novel adaptations need only find themselves on the completionist’s shelf, but that isn’t the case for Colleen Doran’s adaptation of Troll Bridge. New readers will find a wonderfully disturbing and deeply moving take on a classic fairy tale and even those who’re familiar with Gaiman’s short story will find something fresh and even more disquieting in this visceral retelling. Troll Bridge will be available in comic shops on October 5th.