Upcoming novel to feature Buster Keaton and Bluffton neighborhood

By Lisha Arino
Muskegon Chronicle -
February 05, 2013
Matt Phelan, a Pennsylvania-based children's book illustrator and author, has written a graphic novel set in Muskegon's Bluffton neighborhood that features silent film star Buster Keaton as one of its characters. The book is slated for a July release. 

MUSKEGON, MI -- Silent film star Buster Keaton plays a major role in a soon-to-be-released graphic novel set in Muskegon's Bluffton neighborhood between 1908 and 1910.

"Bluffton" follows Henry, a neighborhood boy who is fascinated by the vaudevillians who retreat to the area each summer, according to author Matt Phelan.

In "Bluffton," Henry befriends Keaton, whose family vacationed in the area and helped start the Actor's Colony, a group of stage performers who visited Bluffton each year. But the two boys start to envy each other. Henry wishes his life was as exciting as Keaton's, while the actor wishes his was more normal, like Henry's, Phelan said.

The Pennsylvania-based author began illustrating children's books nine years ago and has authored two other graphic novels for kids called "The Storm in the Barn," which won a Scott O'Dell Award in 2010, and "Around the World." He said the inspiration for "Bluffton" came from a life-long admiration of Keaton's work.

"I've been a Buster Keaton fan since I was a kid, literally," Phelan said before sharing his memories of watching "Cops" and "The General" using a Super 8 projector.

But about 20 years ago, he picked up Keaton's autobiography, which had a section about his summer activities in Muskegon, Phelan said. The stories from that section were hilarious, he said, but it also "sort of got to the heart" of Keaton.

"You really get the feeling from him that this was really the most special time in his life, when he really got to be a kid instead of a star," Phelan said.

He said he wanted to write a story featuring Keaton, but it didn't quite gel until he decided to tell it from Henry's perspective in 2009.

"It was really sort of a 'Eureka!' moment," he said.

In 2010, he began writing the story and rented a home in Bluffton for a week to do research. The next year, he began illustrating the 240-page book using pencil and watercolor paint – an approach, he said, that's different from most other comic books, which color their drawings digitally.

"I like the fact that (the technique) kind of makes it stand out a little bit," he said.

Phelan completed the book in November and sent it to his publisher, Candlewick Press, which will release the book in July. "Bluffton" is also different in other ways. While many graphic novels are written for adult audiences, the book is appropriate for readers 10 years old and up, Phelan said.

It's also devoid of any caped crusaders.

"It's not limited to superheroes," he said of the genre. "It's a way of telling a story. You can tell any kind of story with it."