Book Title: Free Country: A Tale of the Children’s Crusade
Author: Neil Gaiman (Principal writer) and a lot of other DC Vertigo collaborators, including Mark Buckingham, Toby Litt, Peter Gross, Chris Bachalo, Peter Snejbjerg, Jamie Delano, Alisa Kwitney, Rachel Pollack, Mike Barreiro, Daniel Vozzo and Jeanne McGee.
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: Adults
Page Count: 200
Reading time: 2 hours
Format: Hardcover collection (library)
My impressions: This was an unexpected surprise, and yet another book I picked up off the library shelf with very little understanding of what it was about. Glancing at the cover art, my eyes focused more on the “Vertigo” logo and the “Neil Gaiman” credit than the characters, and I must admit I’d forgotten about olf Vertigo characters like Tim Hunter (the bespectacled boy on the cover) from The Books of Magic and Edwin Paine and Charles Rowland (the two boys running arm in arm), the Dead Boy Detectives first seen in Sandman. Fortunately, this story didn’t require any knowledge of those characters to be enjoyable, and while it’s certainly not a perfect graphic novel, it’s so rich and full of great ideas that I can forgive some of the problems, particularly now that I understand how it ever came to be in the first place.
The central idea of Free Country: A Tale of the Children’s Crusade is that a large group of children have gone mysteriously missing, and one of the disappeared’s young siblings hires a rather dubious child detective agency to locate her missing brother. She’s right to be skeptical of detectives Edwin and Charles, who don’t really appear to know what they’re doing and who’ve based almost all of their detective knowledge on what they’ve read in novels, but the sister also doesn’t realize that these boys are ghosts, able to travel on roads she cannot and to visit places she’d never even realize existed.
The story then shifts into a narrative about the legendary Children’s Crusade and a retelling of the tale of the Pied Piper before showing a fantastic realm called the Free Country where children who have endured horrific suffering are invited to reside to escape their terrible fates. The Free Country is a land of eternal childhood, and it seems to be populated with characters from children’s tales as well as the actual children who’ve taken up residence there. Opposite the Free Country is a wasteland with a foreboding dark tower at its center. And while it might seem inexplicable, all of these stories, as well as sidestories from Vertigo comics like Swamp Thing, Black Orchid, Doom Patrol and Animal Man, converge into a central narrative that leads to a showdown at the dark tower.
(And yes, it’s a fun coincidence that just yesterday, I was reading the Dark Tower comics based on Stephen King’s novel series. I had no idea the two books would have anything in common. And I’m glad to say Free Country gave me something those comics lacked – a set of characters who were more than just pawns in a rigid plot, often displaying a wonderful sense of humor.)
With all that said, it’s worth explaining that this 2015 printing is an updated release of an attempting Vertigo crossover series in the early 1990s, and a substantial middle chapter has been added to better explain the narrative, more seamlessly integrate the crossover material and give the obviously rushed ending (which would have benefited by being split into two pieces) a little more punch. Neil Gaiman was the chief writer on this story, and he explains in the introduction how the production was quite a bit like herding cats. It shows. But at the same time, it’s an enjoyable story that’s the right mix of literary and entertaining, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys this style of comics.