My friend looks at the handsome new hardcover on my kitchen table. Strikingly printed in deep violet ink against a butterscotch cover, the illustration by Ramón Pérez depicts a man standing on the edge of a mesa, looking out into nothingness. Set into a bas-relief white sun sits the title: Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand.
“Ah, Jim Henson!” my friend coos, a grin flashing across his face. “This looks neat. Is it a kids’ book?”
Archaia Entertainment, a boutique publisher of comics, will get that question a lot. (A note on the back recommends it for teens and above.) Of course, that same problem bedeviled Henson himself during his heyday: He hit it big by bringing the Muppets to Sesame Street, but that move forever branded Henson as a purveyor of kids’ entertainment. But he had more on his artistic agenda than Bert and Ernie. One excellent example is his 1965 Oscar-nominated surrealist short, “Time Piece,” with nary a Muppet in sight. And then there’s A Tale of Sand, a four-decade-old screenplay for a live-action film he cowrote with longtime collaborator Jerry Juhl. Despite repeated attempts, the men couldn’t get it greenlit, so the script never saw the light of day until now.
When Archaia formed a partnership in 2009 with the Jim Henson Company, editor-in-chief Stephen Christy had his eyes on an unknown prize beyond Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock comics. “We also got access to their archives, which is one of the big reasons we wanted to do this in the first place,” says the 26-year-old, who grew up in Andersonville and now lives in Los Angeles. “I’d heard rumors that there was lost stuff in there.”
About two years ago, Henson archives director Karen Falk faxed over the Holy Grail of Hensonabilia. “It was a really big challenge to figure out how to approach this,” he recalls, “because the story’s so weird and so different. It shows a completely different side of Jim.”
A surreal existentialist tale, Sand follows an everyman protagonist who gets forced into a cat-and-mouse game, with him as the hunted prey, across the harsh landscape of the American Southwest. The story’s menace is offset by bizarre, often humorous moments, like a running gag in which he can’t get his lone cigarette lit. Think “The Most Dangerous Game” crossed with Looney Tunes, pressed through the filter of the late Muppet men’s fertile imaginations.
Suitably, the book brims with nods to its long-gone creators. Although largely dialogue-free, the word balloons that do appear are written in a new font, one based on Henson’s own printing. “We tried a few fonts and nothing looked right,” says Pérez, a Toronto-based artist. “And then we thought, Hey, what about Jim’s handwriting?”
Best of all, Christy, Pérez and designer Eric Skillman chose to incorporate pages of the original screenplay in their old typewritten glory, replete with Henson and Juhl’s handwritten annotations.
“We had to present [Sand] in a way that would celebrate the fact that it was so different,” Christy says. “On one level, it’s the story from the script. On another level, it’s a book about the script, and on another level beyond that, it’s about creativity itself. How do ideas become reality? You see the pages of the screenplay, and you can see Jim and Jerry crossing things out. And then you see the way Ramón interpreted that. You’re getting a look at the creative process.”
Archaia uncovers Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand ($30), in bookstores now.