Stories Within Stories and the People Behind Them
By Jean Chen ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
Jan 16, 2024

(This article is originally published at Readmoo)

I have loved Russian dolls ever since I was a child and how the process of nesting them inside one another is like an endless world that you can just keep extending again and again. I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of form, and at night if I ever had a dream within a dream, my senses all felt exceptionally real, so I’d wake up feeling satisfied up even if the dream within a dream had been scary or painful. There are a lot of films and novels where “the dreamer has a dream within a dream”, but I hadn’t expected to read a modern graphic novel from Taiwan that evoked a similar feeling.

Of course, Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf isn’t a story about a dream within a dream or Russian doll, but it’s fascinating to see how one story after another is woven into the narrative. Even though this is BliSS’s first commercially published graphic novel, the overall narrative is comprehensive and mature with three-dimensional characters that are filled with emotional details. The highly skilled storytelling technique and smooth pacing of the frames help readers easily immerse themselves in the narrative which combines nuanced moments of both sadness and humor to stunning overall effect.

Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf begins with Helena, a seven-year-old girl living in an orphanage who loves to read picture books and has just won an invitation to a book signing by her favorite graphic novelist. The author is Mr. Big Bad Wolf, whose books are always solitary and brutal. He also refuses to face his readers, and reluctantly appears wearing a wolf head and bluntly declines to take any questions about it. In a room full of adults, Helena is the youngest person and fearlessly raises her hand to ask, “Why do you wear a wolf’s head?”

Yes, why indeed? The story starts to unfold as young orphan Helena brings the reader along and opens the first Russian doll. One of them is a grown man and the other is a young girl, but both characters carry deep wounds inside them and the scars from their rough lives are buried in the stories they tell and, then they heal each other as the book progresses. Both of them have a deep desire to tell stories, for Mr. Big Bad Wolf it’s The Scientist and the Giant and for Helena it’s Lara the Witch, but why did they start? And who are they telling the stories to? And why tell them in that way?

I’ll spare you the spoilers here, so maybe instead I’ll talk about the story within the story. Helena, who has lost her parents, is living in an orphanage with her little brother Arthur and has loved telling him stories and reading picture books to him ever since she was small. She used to use stories to block out the sound of the adults arguing and there was a story that she read to him over and over again while she sat beside his hospital bed. That story was The Scientist and the Giant by Mr. Big Bad Wolf but Helena was still waiting for the end because Mr. Big Bad Wolf was going through a slump and couldn’t draw the rest of the story.

In The Scientist and the Giant, a scientist comes across a lonely giant who lives underground, and the scientist tells him stories and shares what he’s seen of the earth which brings light to the giant’s world. It’s almost as if hurt people have a special ability to sniff out wounds. As a wounded child, Helena may have smelt the same thing and ran towards Mr. Big Bad Wolf in a time of great sadness and depression. However, she doesn’t understand what Mr. Big Bad Wolf calls a “slump”, and on the tram the two of them have this conversation:

Helena: What is this slump you keep talking about?

Mr. Big Bad Wolf: …It’s a state that makes you feel powerless, afraid, or even repulsed by something you originally loved and thought was important.

Helena: That seems so scary.

Mr. Big Bad Wolf: It is.

During their brief conversation, Helena seems to suddenly understand and continues: “Ah so that’s what a slump is! It’s when something that was obviously very important to you suddenly feels awful, and you don’t want to be anywhere near it.…”

I particularly love moments like these in graphic novels where I’m silently struck by the characters and their lines, and how they clearly feel a strong sense of empathy for each other even though they’ve had completely different experiences. I mean, who among us hasn’t had been through a slump? The story is about Mr. Big Bad Wolf’s pain, but what I really felt was the person behind the drawings. In those painful, lonely moments, Mr. Big Bad Wolf had to rely on his creativity to get him through. However, creating the work itself was also painful as he desperately wanted to tell a good story but had no way of doing so, and in the process, it was like seeing the shadow of Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf’s author grafting herself onto the story.

There are also some small things in Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf that I found particularly interesting and have brought me great pleasure as a reader. Firstly, all the characters have English names, but I was really intrigued by how the surnames were set up. Helena’s surname is White, and Mr. Big Bad Wolf’s is Blake, and while I know it isn’t the same as Black, the pronunciation is similar! It seems like the author has deliberately used them to create a contrast between lightness and darkness. And after all, the author also called the doctor Rowan Brown and the teacher Melrose Green! (That might just be me overthinking it? XD)

Another detail I really liked was the “book within a book” concept. This story has two protagonists – Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf – one is an adult and one is a child, one is male and the other is female, and both of them love to draw and tell stories. In the graphic novel, their own books also appear throughout the story which lets us see their respective personalities and projections of their characters. When I finished reading the book, I couldn’t help thinking, “I’d buy Lara and the Witch and The Scientist and the Giant if they were published!”

Overall, Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf is a well-structured, smoothly narrated, and moving story that conveys universal values which can be felt by readers of all nationalities. Comprised of only two volumes, it is light while still being deep, which should make it well-suited for foreign rights sales. Finally, I just want to add that I really enjoyed the little four-panel strip in the appendix in which BliSS gives Helena’s friends at the orphanage their own little stories so that all the characters get a look in, which was very thoughtful of the author!