Review: Doug TenNapel’s CARDBOARD


Doug TenNapel should probably take a nap. His new year’s resolution for 2012 was to finish 400 pages of comic art. That kind of commitment requires sacrifice. Like giving up sleeping…or time on the can.

As an artist myself, his industriousness makes me want to work harder. And if his work ethic isn’t enough to make you want to try and tell your stories, his recent work, Cardboard (published by Scholastic) will. Or should, unless you’re dead inside.

The Gist [with a dash of spoiler]:  Cardboard takes us into the life of an out-of-work carpenter named Mike.  Mike is widowed and has a son he’s struggling to provide for.

On his son’s birthday, with a pocket full of change, he purchases the only thing he can afford from an old man named Gideon…a cardboard box.  Like purchasing a Mogwai, this gift comes with rules.  Return every unused scrap, and don’t ask for more cardboard.  Agreeing to the seemingly absurd rules, Mike takes the box home for his son’s birthday.

They spend the evening creating a life-sized cardboard boxer which, by morning, comes to life.  From here we see what’s so special about this cardboard.  Whatever you make from it, becomes carboard-based life. In this case, a boxer named Bill.

Of course from here everything goes horribly wrong when the goth-like kid next door experiments on Bill with water guns, causing his legs to disintegrate. Mike, in an effort to save Bill’s life takes some of the scraps and fashions them into a magic cardboard maker.  Mike’s ingenuity leads to Bill’s recovery…and an endless source of this peculiar material.

This sets up the rest of the story.  For the sake of time I’ll just sum it up briefly.  Bad kid next door steals the maker, makes monsters.  You can do the math yourself. Or better yet, you can buy the book and read it for yourself.


  • The strong father figure who is willing to do what it takes to provide for his family. As a new father myself, this hit home.  Especially in an age where every father in most of pop-culture is a bumbling idiot.
  • The cardboard was never explained.  At one point Mike returns to Gideon for an explanation. Gideon starts by giving a scientific answer (alien tech), which seems to satisfy Mike until Gideon interjects that the alien was also a wizard.  And religious.  Essentially, Mike doesn’t get to know why. And neither do we.  Which is how it should be. (Midicholorians anyone?) Or as Tolkien put it in his essay, On Fairy Stories

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should shut and the keys be lost.”

  • That Bill doesn’t simply desire to be “a real boy”, but a “good man.”  The morning after he recovers from his injuries he can be found at the kitchen table reading Plato. (And also,  The Wrath of Khan…the novel adaptation of Star Trek V is wisely nowhere to be found.)
  • Towards the end one cardboard character wrestles with the nature of his existence, reasoning that there must be more to him than just cardboard. (TenNapel’s point being, I believe, that we too are more than just the materials we’re made of.  Which I happen to agree with.)


  • Mike, upon discovering that his cardboard man has come to life, seems…pretty unimpressed.  Why isn’t there at least one panel of incredulity or confusion?
  • At the end we a real, flesh and blood Bill show up to help rebuild the neighbor’s house (which cardboard Bill helped destroy while saving the world.) Is this the same Bill?  Maybe there’s a clue in there somewhere and I just need to read it again.
  • At one point a cardboard version of Mike’s late wife shows up. Why didn’t she show back up as a real woman?  (If indeed this is the same Bill.)
Despite my minor confusion at the end (and perhaps I’m in danger of asking too many questions in fairyland) the story is thoroughly enjoyable and re-readable. The art is some of Doug’s finest to date and his colorist, Der-Shing Helmer, complements his line art perfectly.
Go get the book, and an extra copy for a kid you know.  

It’s available at Amazon and probably a bookstore near you, although I can’t back that up, because I have no idea where you are.

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