Another reason writers may be drawn to anthropomorphized animals is their absurdity. Once readers accept the reality of talking animals, what else will they buy into? In Matt Phelan’s “The Sheep, the Rooster and the Duck,” the answer is this: Three 18th-century French animal balloonists also happen to be the world’s most extraordinary secret agents.
The premise, absurd as it is, is rooted in a bit of aviation history. In 1783, Versailles, in front of thousands of people, the first hot air balloon with passengers took off. Under the eyes of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, a sheep, a rooster and a duck remained afloat for 15 minutes before falling back to earth. The animals all survived. What they probably didn’t do was advise the Royal Navy, invent more ingenious airships, and prevent a deadly heat ray (invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin) from falling between wrong hands.
Without breaking a sweat, Phelan (“Knights vs. Dinosaurs”) weaves an intoxicating thread featuring secret societies, sword games and espionage. Pierre the swashbuckling rooster, the inventive sheep Bernadette and the strategic duck Jean-Luc are as winning and sure of themselves as the lively and intelligent writing of Phelan. A parade of historical figures figures prominently into the plot and adds to the fun. The author’s note at the end helps separate fact from fantasy. Readers may have heard of Mozart, but they’re less likely to know about French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, English spy Edward Bancroft, or the book’s colorful villain Count Alessandro Cagliostro.
The Cagliostro of Phelan claims he is 3,002 years old and in possession of “enormous wealth and power”. He plans to establish himself in the New World as “the king of America”, a country “sensitive” to charlatans like himself. “The king of liars”, retorts Peter, “is a threat to all creatures.”
Unlike Litchfield’s vividly rendered narrative tableaux, Phelan’s pencil illustrations are drawn in an airy style that isn’t meant to stop us in our tracks. Instead, the book’s 40+ comic pages have the opposite effect; these loosely sketched but tightly choreographed “comic sequences” (as the publisher calls them) propel us through its page-turner at an even faster pace. “The Sheep, the Rooster and the Duck” is not quite a graphic novel, nor an illustrated book pure and simple; it is neither fish nor poultry. It is all about sheep and fowl, however, and it will be hard for young readers to stop.