Apart from a small number of outstanding graphic novels (e.g. Bryan Talbot's Grandville, Blacksad by Guarnido and Canales) I don't do books featuring anthropomorphic animals. They just don't interest me - I'd rather be reading about humans with human characteristics than animals with human characteristics. This is the only reason why this first Julius Zebra book by Gary Northfield has sat unread on my TBR pile for some time, as I have really enjoyed some of his work in the Beano and The Phoenix comic. However, last week I finally got around to picking it up to read and I loved it.
Imagine Gladiator, Ben Hur or Spartacus, where the hero is replaced by a rather nervous, slightly daft and totally naive zebra, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Rumble with the Romans. Add in a healthy dollop of toilet humour and a host of other equally bonkers animal characters and you have a book that will cause many a giggle and guffaw amongst the 7 pluses (and most likely their parents as well).
Julius Zebra (don't call him Debra! Or Barbara! And definitely DO NOT refer to him as a stripy horse!) is a fabulous main character, with just the right level of daftness. Having been separated from his family (he's a nervous sort, and tries to sneak home from the stinky crocodile-infested waterhole) he is captured and finds himself transported to Rome, in the company of an equally daft warthog and a grumpy lion. Hearing the word circus, he naively believes he is on his way to see some juggling monkeys, and even when he reaches Rome it takes some time for the light bulb to come on. By then it is too late, and he finds himself as arrow/spear fodder for the gladiators at the Colosseum. However, more by luck than judgement, he ends up fighting back (something an animal has never done) and he quickly becomes the people's champion. However, this is only the beginning of his woes.
Gary's illustrations are even funnier than the text that accompanies them, and they aren't just there as pretty pictures for show either - they are mostly used to continue and add to the story, in much the same way as a comic works. Natutally, being from the pen and brain of Gary Northfield they are invariably laugh-out-loud funny, and make this a perfect book for kids who love a mixture of crazy drawings and bonkers written prose (not quite as silly as Mr Gum or Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face, but pretty damn close in places).
The book isn't just an in your face laugh-fest either. Northfield has worked on the Horrible Histories books and has obviously taken note of their success at delivering historical fact in an amusing way that appeals to kids, as in Rumble with the Romans he very cleverly weaves in all kind of historical elements about gladiators and Roman life in general, both in the writing and in his fantastic illustrations. He even includes a glossary at the end of the book, listing many of the historical terms that he has used within his story.
All-in-all Rumble with the Romans is a wonderfully funny and anarchic take on the gladiators of Ancient Rome and I'm really looking forward to reading the next book in the series, whenever it is released. My thanks go to those fab people at Walker for sending me a copy.