REVIEW: ‘Tale of Sand: the Illustrated Screenplay’

(Archaia, 2014)

Tale of Sand: The Illustrated Screenplay
Written by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl
Illustrated by Ramon K. Perez
Edited by Stephen Christy

Anyone who grew up in the 80’s grew up with Jim Henson.  I was no different, and perhaps I was even more inundated with the Henson-esque style of television because we didn’t have cable until I was in high school.  Add movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal to my childhood and you can understand why I have always been a Henson-o-phile.  (To read more of my fawning at the feet of Mr. Henson, check out last week’s review of The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow, link below.)

One thing about comics is that, despite the sedentary nature of enjoying the medium, they are moving quite fast.  Think about it, a new book every two weeks or even once a month.  If you skip a couple of weeks, you’re behind, and during all of that time there are new books coming out, books that people rave about, that you “have” to read.  So you miss things, like I missed Tale of Sand.

Jim Henson, for all of his lovable creations and heartstring plucking themes, had a darker side.  The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were just two of his darker ideas, morality plays stages with distinct and exacting puppetry, a child’s show with an adult’s theme.  Tale of Sand would have been more in line with those, and with his experimental short film, Time Piece, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.  What could Tale of Sand have become with Henson at the helm, we may never know, but the Henson Foundation, along with Archaia and the illimitable Ramon K. Perez, have given us the next best thing.

Tale of Sand was a screenplay written by Jim Henson and collaborator Jerry Juhl around 1965, a full-length feature that was re-written several times but never produced.  Then, in 2010, the Henson Company started looking for someone to adapt Tale of Sand into a graphic novel, and Ramon K. Perez was chosen.  That choice would ultimately lead to multiple Eisner awards for Best Graphic Album, Best Publication Design, and Best Penciller/Inker.

I never read the original.  It passed by my radar, despite the critical acclaim, while I busied myself with things Marvel and DC, with Civil Wars and Planet Hulks and New 52’s.  But it should have been observed, and by many of you, I’m sure it was.

Now those same people have released a new edition of Tale of Sand, an “illustrated screenplay”.  If you’ve not read the original, this is certainly a way to get you interested in it, and although the art is interspersed within long-stretches of prose, it reads so fast that you don’t notice.  Perez took the original script and added partially finished pages of his own work for the graphic novel, ingeniously spaced throughout the type-written pages, along with Henson and Juhl’s own annotations, to give us a fascinating look at the way the two wrote together, as well as to show Perez’s rough page layouts.  The result is…to put it simply, a great piece of graphic fiction.

This is not a Muppet story.  This is one of the bleakest stories I’ve read in some time even though it was written almost sixty years ago.  It feels like it would fit better in an episode of The Twilight Zone, not in the Henson archives where the likes of Gonzo and Miss Piggy reside in felt.  Be that as it may, this story proves what a genius Henson was, and how his absence in the world is an absence of a creatively original mind.

Here there be spoilers…but they will in no way take away from your enjoyment of the story.  Tale of Sand is the story of Mac, who wanders confusedly into his own life in the first panel and is pushed desperately across the desert, chased by a man with an eye patch, a group Arabs, some Nazis, football players (including Big Bill Bronksy of the Green Bay Packers and John Wayne.)  It is a stream-of-consciousness story that tosses Mac about like a cork on the ocean.  It’s bleak folks, but the story is entertaining without being flip, and moves so fast that, as your reading it, you bemoan your lack of speedy-eye power.

But that isn’t the thing that makes it great.  There is so much packed into this story in the form of symbolism and theme that you could, and probably will, read it over and over again and wonder at the genius of Henson.

Mac is an outsider, permanently confused, always on the run, always looking for the least bit of relief that always eludes him.  Patch and the beautiful blond who is on his arm are taunting him, ready to pounce on the smallest mistake.  Is this a metaphor for life?  Is this the way that Henson felt, or is this perhaps an amusing, if strongly depressing, daydream?  Either way, the final outcome is a fine piece of Henson and Juhl’s imagination on paper, and that is a piece of fiction history.

Perez’s (Amazing Spider-Man, King’s Watch) hand in this book cannot be understated.  His artwork brings life to the script, but it is also his editing of the original script that appears in the final draft.  Perez has brought the lump of clay that was Henson and Juhl’s idea (one that may have moldered in an archival vault forever) and worked that idea into a museum-grade piece that will live for as long as people are still reading comics.  It is a masterpiece, and Ramon K. Perez was instrumental in making it happen as a lasting piece of artwork.

If you’ve not read Tale of Sand, by all means, go out and get it.  Whether it is the original graphic novel or the illustrated screenplay, both will leave you with a sense that Jim Henson really was some king of amazing when it came to storytelling.  I feel blessed to have been alive in the same era as him, to have seen the things that were in his mind on the screen.  And thanks to Archaia and Ramon K. Perez, we’ve been given another look at what real storytelling is, storytelling like you read about.

For more Henson fun, check out…
My review for Henson and Juhl’s “The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow”.


Brad Gischia is a writer and artist living in the frozen Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He is married and has three kids and a dog, who all put up with his incessant prattling about comic books.


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