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Archive for the ‘comics’ Category

Comic Reviews

It’s been a while…but I’m back!  And I have been reading a ridiculous number of graphic novels lately.  In no particular order, here are two graphic novels that you should immediately run out to your nearest comic book store (or library) and find.

Zombies Calling by Faith Erin Hicks

Zombies invade the university of Western Ontario and Joss and her friends must follow the rules of zombie movies to survive.  Fun and funny with a great twist ending. Hicks has a beautiful drawing style (see also Brain Camp, The War at Ellesmere) and knows how to marry text and images together to tell a complete story – in other words, she knows how to make comics.

Prime Baby by Gene Luen Yang

Thaddeus K. Fong thinks his little sister is an alien.  Actually, she is only a gateway through which aliens travel.  Seriously.  Yang is one of my favourite comic writers out there, and has been since I read American Born Chinese. He writes the best tween/teen boys in the universe and he knows how to make comic books.  If you like graphic novels, you should read this.  if you don’t like graphic novels you should read this (after which, you will like graphic novels).

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So April was Graphic Novel month at Chez Laura.

 

Stitches: A Memoir by David Small
Yes, it is another graphic memoir about a dysfunctional childhood – but it’s a really good one! The story is compelling – Small went into the hospital to have a growth removed and woke up without one vocal cord, rendering him mute and only found out later that he had cancer and wasn’t expected to survive. And the art is very nice.

 


Robot Dreams by Sara Varon

This wordless and sweet tale of friendship between a dog and a robot is a perfect example of the Graphic Novel as a purely visual medium. Lovely.

 


The Golem’s Mighty Swing by James Sturm

A 1920s Jewish baseball team, the Stars of David, run into trouble on tour and agree to a publicity stunt – creating a Golem. Sturm’s first graphic novel about baseball and racism is fascinating and powerful, though I liked his later book Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow more.

 

Houdini: The Handcuff King by James Lutes and Nick Bertozzi

I love graphic novels that tell short, self contained stories, especially when the stories are true. This one is about a particular trick that Harry Houdini once did – jumping into the Charles River with his hands and feet bound in chains. Really cool.

 

Fables: Sons of Empire by Bill Willingham et al.
The fourth Fables graphic novel I have read this year is one of the better ones. Picking up where Fables: Wolves left off, the adversary plots the destruction of the Mundy world and Bigby and Snow White deal with family matters. The series is still well worth reading, but I wasn’t too fond of the art in the second half.

 

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis

Brilliant non-fiction children’s graphic book about growing up in Czechoslovakia during the cold war. Sis includes contextual political and cultural information and parallels it with the story of a boy who drew – a boy very much like himself. A brilliant story and a brilliant way to teach kids history. Loved it.

 


The Professor’s Daughter by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert

Strange and wonderful graphic novel about the mummy of Imhotep IV falling in love with an Egyptologist’s daughter in Victorian London. Gorgeous art.

 


The Eternal Smile: Three Stories by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

Graphic novel month continues with these three short, fascinating and stylistically different stories exploring what these three people want in life, their various escapes from reality and the reconciliation of real life and ideal life. It doesn’t quite live up to the genius of American Born Chinese, but I don’t think anything could have.

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Asterios Polyp is the best graphic novel I have read since American Born Chinese. Asterios is a middle aged “paper architect” with a failed marriage. Then his apartment burns down and he buys a ticket for the first bus out of town. The story of Asterios’ marriage is interwoven with his sojourn as a mechanic in the small town at the end of the bus ride. What makes this book so amazing is how Mazzucchelli uses the art to flesh out the story. Like the very best graphic novels, the art is not just illustrating the words, but adding dimensions to the story through its own language. Asterios Polyp is absolutely glorious. Read it!

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The Photographer documents a trip into Afghanistan made 20 years ago by a Medicin Sans Frontiers team to treat the sick and wounded during the Soviet invasion. Didier Lefevre went on the trip to photograph it, stayed with the mission in Afghanistan for a month and then left them and attempted to return to Pakistan with a caravan, which turned out to be a disaster that nearly killed him.

I love documentary graphic novels. but it seems like this is an area where a lot of the artists, authors and publishers don’t really understand comics. What I mean by that is that in comics the words and the pictures should each add something to every panel – they should not contain exactly the same information. While The Photographer suffers from this to some extent (1/3 of all panels in the book are of Didier standing next to a horse on a mountain), the book is saved by two things. The comic panels remind us visually every minute of the terrain of Afghanistan and the journey, which is vital to the story. And the whole story is brought to life by Didier’s photographs, which are amazing. It isn’t a great comic, but it is a great story.

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Fables: Arabian Nights and Days by Bill Willingham, et al.
This is the seventh volume of Fables, an ongoing comic series about fairy tale characters living in exile in a hidden enclave in Manhattan. I am slowly working my way through the series and enjoying it, though I’m not compelled to sit down and gorge myself on the whole series at once like I did with Sandman or Strangers in Paradise. This is one of the weaker volumes, as it moves the overall story along, but does not involve the ongoing stories of many of the characters. If you are going to try Fables, start at the beginning with Fables: Legends in Exile, this volume doesn’t stand alone.


Fables: Wolves by Bill Willingham, et al.
A good installment in the series, featuring the return of Cinderella Superspy and a conclusion to the Bigby/Snow White storyline. I’m enjoying the expansion of the other worlds and the greater focus on characters that we’ve only seen briefly before. This series is still keeping me interested after eight volumes, so it’s definitely doing something right.


Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham et al.
This volume fills in some of the back story of the residents of Fabletown, as Snow White plays Scheherazade and spins tales to keep her head. I liked the premise, and some of the short stories about the minor characters, but I hated the back story for Snow White and Flycatcher. In particular I hated the inclusion of a particular element in those two stories, which seemed to be included simply to be salacious. Also, I suspect Snow’s back story was meant to improve our opinion of Prince Charming by assassinating Snow’s character.

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This was a book talk I did for a youth collection development class.

Graphic Novels, due to their visual nature, are an excellent medium to tell stories about identity and belonging, about race and prejudice. Because comics literally put a face on the characters, they can create an instant understanding and connection between them and the reader. Today I want to talk about two books that are incredible examples of how this can be accomplished: American Born Chinese by Gene Luan Yang and Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso.

American Born Chinese by Gene Yang was published in 2006 and was a Finalist for the National Book Award in young people’s literature that year, the first graphic novel ever to be recognized by the national book foundation. In 2007, it won the ALA’s Michael L. Printz Award and the Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Album.

Gene Yang is a high school computer science teacher who had previously published several short comics, including Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks. He is a major proponent of using comics in teaching, and has created a web resource on teaching with comics as part of his M. Ed. degree which can be accessed through his site, humble comics

American Born Chinese is Yang’s effort to say something about his experiences growing up as an Asian-American. It tells three stories; the legend of the Monkey King, who didn’t want to be a monkey, the story of Jin Wang, a Chinese American boy trying to fit into a predominantly white school in the suburbs, and the story of Danny, an all American high school kid whose life is ruined every year when his cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit.

These three stories appear at first to be separate, but by the end we discover that they are really three different parts of the same story. The Monkey King and Jin Wang both want to become something else, to stop being different and fit in with their peers. Danny does fit in, until Chin-Kee, the embodiment of every racist stereotype, comes to visit. Chin-Kee comes every year, because Danny, like the monkey king, cannot change what he is. He must accept and embrace all the parts of himself, and then Chin-Kee will no longer have power over him. The genius of this book is that Yang does not tell us this – he shows us and in such a way that the reader gets to figure it out for themselves. When the reader sees Chin-Kee, we understand what he is and what he means. That is the great power of the visual medium.

This is a serious theme, treated with a humorous, interesting story, told with exciting art, a perfectly constructed narrative and a beautiful voice. I recommend it very highly for ages 14 and over.

The second book I want to talk about is Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso. It was published in 2008 and was the Eisner Award Winner for Best Reality-Based Work and an NAACP Award Nominee for Best Literary Work for Youth/Teens.

The author , James Sturm, is the co founder of the Centre for Cartoon Studies and the founder of the National Association of Comics Art Educators. His most famous book is the award winning The Golum’s Mighty Swing, which was also about baseball. The artist, Rich Tommaso, is the author and artist of a number of indy comics. The authors have created a great teacher’s guide for the this book, with lost of links to websites about Satchel Paige, the negro leagues and the Jim Crow laws.

Satchel Paige was the best pitcher in the negro leagues from the 1920s to the 1940s, and after the major league was integrated, he pitched in the majors until he was well into his 60s. He was the highest paid athlete in the world in the 1940s and one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. But this is not a book about Satchel Paige. It is a book about the legend of Satchel Paige, and what he meant to two generations of black sharecroppers in the Jim Crow south. The book is written as a first person narrative, telling the story of a man who faced Paige during his brief career in the negro leagues, and fifteen years later, took his son to see an exhibition game between Paige’s all Stars and the local white-only team. In between these two events, we see how the white landowners maintained their control in the south through intimidation, humiliation, and violence and how this beat down the black sharecropper.

This is a story about representation and what it means for an oppressed person to see someone who looks like themselves stand up to the forces of oppression and how seeing that creates hope and belief in possibilities for the future.

Sturm and Tommaso deal with an incredibly difficult story in the most amazing way. The text and art are both simple and poignant throughout, and harsh when they need to be. This is an emotional book. It will make readers angry, and it will make them sad. Most of all, it left me in awe of the storytelling ability of Sturm and Tommaso. It is not an easy book, but it is a necessary book and I recommend it very highly for teens and adults both, and particularly for students of American History.

While both of these books are by male authors, about male characters, the quality of storytelling and importance of the subject matter make these must reads for boys and girls both. They are wonderful examples of what can be done in the comics medium and I would suggest these both for veteran comics readers and those who have never touched a graphic novel.

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In June I read the brilliant The Plot by Will Eisner, which traces the history of the antisemitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion from its creation by an anti-modernist Russian faction at the turn of the century, through the many ways that it has been disproved, to its continuing and disturbing existence today. This is a brilliant work on the relationship between hatred, prejudice, propaganda and political opportunism, using the comics format to stay accessible and focused. Eisner’s art is gorgeous, of course. It is sad and disturbing and it makes me really angry at the stupidity and sheer dumb hate in this world. I recommend it very, very highly.

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