Salt Water Taffy 4: Caldera’s Revenge

After three volumes of relatively stand-alone adventures — The Legend of Old Salty, A Climb up Mt. Barnabas, and The Truth About Dr. TrueSalt Water Taffy tries something new, a continuing story. Caldera’s Revenge is part one of a tale of Jack and Benny facing off against a very angry whale, the Caldera of the title.

Matthew Loux’s art is amazing, much more deeply nuanced in setting up the Maine atmosphere than I remembered. I best know him for his solid, thick outlines around his characters, especially when it comes to sharp points, but the work here astounded me. The ocean at night, in the opening ghost scene, is so deep and mysterious that I kept being sucked into staring at the images on these pages. I don’t want to say that the art has matured, because that suggests that there was something wrong with it before, but I can’t think of a better word, now that Loux’s style is more detailed and subtle in its effects. (Except when it comes to clutching hands, which often look like striped dinner rolls.)

The next scene, with four old fishermen swapping stories in a tavern, evokes the previous books in the legends they mention and reminds me of the appeal of Salt Water Taffy: the feeling that anything can happen. The border between reality and folklore is not only crossed, it’s ignored, which give these summer boys’ adventure tales their appeal. Any lad can dream of being Jack or Benny, on their own and making choices that lead to amazing encounters. Plus, the four old men’s tales are funny in themselves, and they provide a lagniappe of entertainment to the reader beyond the main story. That’s an excellent choice, given the continued nature of this volume (and the lack of announced release date yet for the next chapter), so the younger reader has some other imaginative ideas to chew over while patiently waiting for the next installment. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting them to announce anything until the next chapter is ready — it’s just easier to wait when you know how long you need to do so.)

I don’t mind that author’s choice, of writing a longer story, because I think it’s another sign of continuing growth, of seeking new artistic challenges in the pacing and storytelling. In fact, a quarter of the book goes by before we even see Jack and Benny, and then they’re indoors, struggling with “The Hidden History of Chowder Bay”, an old, dense book. They soon give up, to head downstairs for Dad grilling hotdogs. I love how well-chosen Loux’s events are to symbolize summer vacation with key symbolic moments like a cookout. Also, the talking lobster pals are funny. He’s built a world here beyond just his two protagonists, one with rich characters it’s a pleasure to revisit.

The main story takes prominence more than halfway in, as Jack, Benny, and Captain Angus try to help a talking baby giant squid reunite with his family. That gets them back on the open ocean, three guys doing the right thing in ridiculous yet thrillingly exciting circumstances. The cliffhanger is just right — I hope the next chapter comes later this year! Additionally, there’s a 20-page story written by Loux and illustrated by Brian Stone about Dan the Wolf, who lives on Mt. Barnabas, that provides some animal slapstick. (The publisher provided an online review copy.)

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