Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

A Story in Black and White About Things That Are Grey

Friday, January 21st, 2011

There’s an American Express commercial you may have seen last year, spotlighting the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization that follows children from birth to college, ensuring that they have the tools to succeed academically. The man featured in that commercial is Geoffrey Canada, the organization’s president and chief executive officer. You may have also seen him on The Colbert Report or in the documentary film Waiting for Superman. He’s the author of the memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, which was just adapted into a graphic novel by Jamar Nicholas and published by Beacon Press.

The graphic novel presents a series of 10 short vignettes, short stories each illustrating a “lesson” learned growing up on the streets of the South Bronx in the ’50s and ’60s. The stories are for the most part unconnected from one another, sharing little but their protagonists and setting, with the occasional recurring cast. This makes it a fairly easy read, something that can be picked up and put down as the reader feels comfortable, and also ideal for using this book as a teaching tool in class. The downside is that it lacks a sense of urgency, lacking the build up promised by the title. Though there is a moment where Mr. Canada definitively turns his back from a violent solution, it’s disconnected from the previous chapters and functions more as an epilogue than as a integral piece of the working story, which mostly takes place on Union Avenue.

Though I did not grow up in the South Bronx, nor was my childhood as violently fraught as Mr. Canada’s, it did get me thinking back to my own experiences with what most people would term “bullying.” I remember how frightening it could be sometimes, and the shame that comes when you don’t fight back. While I was able to simply disengage myself from my bullies, avoiding those who made my life hell, not everyone has that luxury, and when you have to live like that all the time, it’s no wonder things get so screwed up. Reading the book was admittedly depressing, because it comes from a very harsh place, where even the bits of kindness come from a need for communal protection. It gives meaning to the phrase “cruel to be kind” when he explains that the other kids forced him to fight so he could hold his own again outsiders, or even in the very first story, when his mother chews his brothers out for letting another kid take one of their jackets.

A lot of the heavy lifting in this graphic novel is done by the words and not the illustrations; what the adaptation did was condense the memoir down to a more digestible form. The art is very heavy on faces and figures displayed on blank backgrounds, using some establishing shots and sparse lines to suggest the setting but for the most part relying on the text to give you a sense of place. The figure work isn’t exceptionally fluid; it’s the jagged nature of it that suggests movement and violence.

Ultimately, the subject matter is an excellent choice for a graphic novel adaptation, and the book itself makes for a quick, enlightening read. Few outside that world will ever know exactly what goes on in there, but this graphic novel does a good job of helping us understand.

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence: A True Story in Black and White
adapted by Jamar Nicholas
from the memoir by Geoffrey Canada
published by Beacon Press (Boston, 2010)
ISBN 978-0-8070-4449-0

A complimentary copy of the book was provided to me via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

A Foodie in Scandinavia

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

It’s amazing that with all the food comics we’ve posted here on the blog, that it took me this long to discover Mostly About Food, a comic blog that is exactly what it says it is: mostly about food. Created by Danish artist Kalle Räihä with installments released at irregular intervals between 2006 and 2008, the comics cover a wide variety of topics, from cooking (with recipes), eating at restaurants, farming, and the occasional bit of cultural background.

Räihä has a bit of a sense of humor and he’s very honest about his own failings, both as a comic artist and a foodie, which makes for very refreshing reading. His art isn’t spectacular and his life drawings seem amateurish and/or awkward at times, but he makes up for it with a willingness to vary and experiment with his style, and he displays a solid understanding of how a comic should work. As he says, “The text and pictures should complement each other, which means that the text should only tell the things that the picture can’t.”

Simply delectable.

Don’t Try To Cross King Con

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

This past weekend was the second annual King Con, a comic convention held at the Brooklyn Lyceum. While I was unable to attend due to social obligations (and admittedly I forgot the convention was even happening), King Con wasn’t the only event going on that Sunday. As luck would have it, Sunday was also the New York City Marathon, which runs through all five boroughs for as long as it takes to cross the finish line. The Lyceum happened to be right in the path of the marathon, making it a bit difficult for con-goers to get from the subway to their final destination. Bree Rubin and her webcomic Sex, Drugs and June Cleaver did a strip displaying the Frogger-esque crossing that was necessary that day.

The convention was a four-day affair, so at least there were three unobstructed days to cross the street like a normal human being. Still, I hope that most of the attendees managed to enjoy their unexpected exercise.

(via Jimmy’s Juke Joint)

Limey on the Left Coast

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Moresukine gave us the perspective of a German living in Tokyo; now LA Limey will show you LA from an English perspective.

Each week Limey posts a new installment, roughly the equivalent of three printed pages. He starts off with getting his preconceived notions out of the way—like the fact that not all Americans are fat, especially Los Angelinos—but never shelves the snark; in fact, it seems to only intensify as he becomes more comfortable in his surroundings. Still, he finds things to appreciate, and hopefully we’ll also get a look into the creative process as he starts work on a comic he started in London, as well as his completed travelogue (which might be sold at Skylight Books).

Out of Sync

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

There’s a pretty big divide between what we know as mainstream comics (mostly superhero books) and the small press/indie stuff. Not to say that there aren’t people who read both, or that creators don’t cross over from one to the other, but comparing the crowds at say, New York Comic Con and Alternative Press Expo; they’re very different. And there’s mutual disdain—a mainstream fan might find indie/small press stuff boring or pretentious, and an indie/small press fan might find a superhero book idiotic or uninspired.

The disconnect is a real shame, because sometimes it feels like the people on the indie side of things have dismissed all superhero books outright, without looking at what they have to offer. I’m not talking about plotting or characters—let’s face it, sometimes they are pretty stupid—but the actual construction of the comic, the way they use panel layouts to create pacing, the way they integrate the text and images into a cohesive whole. The nuts-and-bolts that hold the medium together. The superhero genre has been around a long time, and they generally have the “how-to” part down.

The “how-to” part is the biggest problem with Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays, edited by Brendan Burford with a very diverse field of contributors. The term “picto-essay” is perhaps more correct; it is Burford himself that uses the word “comics” in his introduction and on the back cover. Many of the stories in this volume are reminiscent of photo essays, which are generally slideshows where each photo is accompanied by a caption. I have nothing against photo essays, or even these picto-essays, I just find the actual “comics” component weak. Two of the segments (“Portfolio” and “Subway Buskers”) don’t even have text; they’re simply sketch galleries of Washington Square Park and subway buskers respectively.

It also feels like the definition of “essay” gets muddled at times; a few segments lack a solid narrative structure that would have strengthened what they were trying to achieve. “What We So Quietly Saw” by Greg Cook presents segments from prisoner interrogations at Guantanamo without making the transitions from incident to incident clear. “Like Hell I Will” by Nate Powell presents various scenes from the Tulsa race riot of 1921 in a confusing jumble, not clearly connecting the captions to the panels with dialogue; what exactly are the latter type of scenes showing us?

Even with its weak points, Syncopated does have its bright spots. A few of the stories integrate text and images and follow a cohesive narrative flow, the result being some very excellent comics work. “West Side Improvements” by Alex Holden made for a very strong essay, teaching the reader a bit of New York history while also making a point about urban renewal. “A Coney Island Rumination” by Paul Hoppe and “An Encounter With Richard Peterson” by Brendan Burford also follow similar threads and themes. My favorite story is “The Sound of Jade” by Sarah Glidden, where she accompanies her father on an adoption visit to China. Another strong point was “Dvorak” by Alec Longstreth, who we’ve covered previously here in the blog.

For an early attempt at a comics essay anthology Syncopated isn’t bad, but it is wildly uneven.  Most essay anthologies follow a theme, something that ties all the disparate contributors and narratives together, something that this volume lacks. Future editions of Syncopated would definitely benefit from more direction.

Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays
edited by Brendan Burford
published by Villard Books (New York, 2009)
ISBN 978-0-345-50529-3

Be Careful What You Post

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Once upon a time, privacy was just something you naturally had. Unless you were a celebrity or purposely sought attention for whatever reason, you could live your life pretty low-key and under-the-radar. Not anymore, thanks to the Internet. Whether you want it to or not, information about you is going to show up on the ‘net, and there are even sites and apps that actively encourage you to share your life with the world.

This shrinkage of privacy is happening pretty quickly, and perhaps we’re ill-equipped to handle it. PrivacyActivism is doing its part to battle this knowledge gap, and last year they launched Networked: Carabella on the Run, a graphic novel by Gerard Jones and Mark Badger following the adventures of a strange blue girl named Carabella as she navigates college life while keeping her past a secret. Carabella has some very legitimate reasons for wanting her life to stay private, and her attempts to preserve her privacy are embedded in a twelve chapter narrative involving a pair of a high-tech shoes and extra-dimensional invaders.

The story might be science fiction, but sci-fi has always been used to explore social concepts that can’t always be properly discussed in other genres. Science fiction often uses metaphor and symbolism when dealing with sensitive subjects, but Carabella is pretty straight forward in its advocation of privacy, drawing your attention to some of the common problems and hopefully guiding the reader towards making better decisions about what information they choose to share.

Most of the novel is available to read online, but perhaps it’s better to pick up the printed edition offered by NBM Publishing. The novel hasn’t finished its serialization on the website, only going up to chapter 10 at this time; the online presentation is also less-than-stellar, using flash gimmicks that destroy the pacing and generally frustrate the reading experience.

Always Whole, Never Skim

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Comics are a good format for travel writing because by their nature they are about taking motion (and emotion) and capturing its essence on the page. Words and images combine; the creator can both tell and show their readers what they saw, and what they experienced.

That is precisely what Lucy Knisley does in her work French Milk. In December 2006 Lucy and her mother Georgia lived in Paris for about five weeks, from Christmas Day until the end of January. French Milk is her drawn journal from that time, possibly with some editing and interspersed with photos taken on  her new digital camera.

Because the pages are taken straight from her journal, the book isn’t expressly designed as a comic; most of the pages are Knisley describing things in text, accompanied by a few lovely drawings to liven up the page or illustrate her point. On top of that, the photographs aren’t fully integrated into the story. Most are presented without captions, and a few without context. Some are even blurry, and the black-and-white printing doesn’t help distinguish one Parisian building from another.

The art is fine; Kinsley chooses to use a simple cartoony style for most of her drawings but there is the occasional delving into more detailed, realistic styles. I particularly enjoyed the drawing of her mother looking at a map, displayed on the same spread as photo of her mother looking at a map in front of an ad for a skin magazine.

The strongest part of the book is the food. Knisley is fastidious in documenting everything her and her mother ate, accompanying most mentions with a drawing of the food item in question. She also names the restaurants they eat in, so aspiring tourists can give them a try on their next trip to Paris. She does the same thing with some of the shopping trips they took as well.

When Knisley isn’t talking about food or shopping she’s talking about her personal life, and that’s where my problems with this book arise. She spends a good deal of the first half of the book being homesick, and it’s absolutely no fun to read a travel comic where the author gives the very strong impression that they’d rather not be traveling. Sure, everyone gets a little homesick at times, but this isn’t the appropriate venue for it. And when that angst subsides, we get a glimpse into her other insecurities: she’s going to graduate college in a few months, but has no idea what to do with her life, how to be a “grownup,” what or she’s going to do for money. These concerns are normally relatable, except that the particular context in which they’re expressed is damning. She and her mother can afford to live in Paris for six weeks. I think that she’ll be just fine.

Given that I am reviewing her book, an honest-to-god paperback published by an actual publisher, she is doing just fine. The book is fine too, I just wish that it was better.

French Milk
written and drawn by Lucy Knisley
Touchstone (New York, 2007)
ISBN 978-1-4165-7534-4

(thanks to Anna)

World Comics Power

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Comics are a great communications tool for people in impoverished areas because of their highly visual nature and ease of access; even people who don’t know how to read can still enjoy a comic, and they don’t need complex or expensive equipment to make one. With that in mind, the World Comics Network conducts a series of workshops teaching local peoples how to make “grassroots comics,” focusing on topics that matter to them and hopefully encouraging discussion and debate. Starting in India, the program has spread to nearby Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, and even further abroad to Africa (Mozambique, Benin, Tanzania), Latin America (Brazil), and Europe (United Kingdom, Finland).

The program has also began to touch upon comics journalism, using the medium not just to encourage debate, but to disseminate information in the first place. Programs are currently being set up at various universities throughout India.

Most of the comics created by the World Comics Network are intended for local distribution only, photocopies that are passed around, or in some cases, put on exhibition by the roadside for passersby to view. However, a handful of professionally printed compilations are available, including Understanding Gandhi Through Comics and Whose Development (about development projects in India).

Barefoot, Pregnant, and Live on Stage

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Isadora Duncan is possibly one of the greatest dancers of all time, and yet her name is unknown to many (especially in the US). Perhaps this is because dance is an art of motion, and almost no film exists of Duncan actually dancing—only photographs, paintings, sculptures, her writings, biographies, and the personal accounts of those that saw her dance. In Isadora Duncan: a graphic biography, artist Sabrina Jones takes all of these sources and attempts to create a living, breathing portrait of the woman and her art using comics. This seems only appropriate, given that the nature of comics is to take static images and breathe life (and the illusion of motion) into them.

Jones’ curvy, flowing ink brush style suits the nature of the story well; her art does a good job of conveying Duncan’s free and loose style of dance. Duncan chafed against the stiffness of “traditional” dancing like ballet, and so this book eschews panel borders for the most part. However, that does not stop the book from being divided into chapters, nor from each page following a rough 2×3 panel configuration.

The dancing and art style might be flowing, but the same cannot be said for the pacing of the book, which jumps from place to place and from event to event in Duncan’s life. The transitions are rough, and not always clear, making it hard to distinguish where Isadora is at a given point in her life, or how much time has passed. While the beginning of the book seems to delineate the early periods of Isadora’s life with some clarity, her later years go by in a blur, with Duncan reaching middle-age fairly quickly. Maybe this is intentional; a reflection of the path of Isadora’s real life, touring through Europe and the United States, meeting new lovers, starting schools, and spending all her money, only to end up touring again in order to stay afloat.

Regardless of these narrative issues, Isadora Duncan’s story is fascinating, and she espoused many ideas which, though accepted today, were rather scandalous at the time, making her story rather revolutionary.

Isadora Duncan: a graphic biography
written and illustrated by Sabrina Jones
edited by Paul Buhle
introduction by Lori Belilove
published by Hill and Wang (New York, 2008)
ISBN 978-0-8090-9497-4

Dispatches from Tokyo

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Living in a foreign country can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t speak the language. You might miss out on a lot, especially if you’re only there for a short period of time. Which might be why, back in 2006, German artist Dirk Schwieger proposed the following to his readers while living in Tokyo: send him suggestions for places to go, people to meet, or just interesting topics to investigate, and he will go out and do it. No questions asked, and he doesn’t have to like it. Then he chronicled each “assignment” in the form of a webcomic on his blog.

In 2008 these comics were collected into a book, Moresukine: Uploaded Weekly From Tokyo. The name “Moresukine” comes from the Japanese method of pronouncing “Moleskine,” the brand of notebook the original comics were created in, which the printed book sought to emulate in its design. The book is the size and cut of a Moleskine notebook, and if not for the illustration on the blue band wrapped around the cover, it could easily be mistaken for one.

The book consists of a brief introduction and story, followed by the stories of each assignment, from fashion to fugu. He covers topics as diverse as the Studio Ghibli Museum, love hotels, and Japanese slang. Each story is short but sweet; few overstay their welcome, while some, like the entry on religion, might not be long enough. He plays with the passage of time on a few assignments; the rooftop roller coaster entry tells the story of riding the roller coaster while simultaneously recounting the events leading up to that ride. The gender entry is actually a fold-out page; a series of random, yet interconnected thoughts are spread across a sheet two pages wide and two pages tall. It can be confusing, but greatly satisfying once all the pieces fall into place.

As all of the main Moresukine strips have previously appeared on the web, Schwieger attempts to sweeten the pot by offering bonus material in the published book.  The last section consists of a series of strips created by other artists, chronicling their responses to a challenge issued by Schweiger: talk to a Japanese person and write a strip about it. The selection of artists is mostly European, with a few from Canada and the United States. Some of the choices are rather… interesting, including Steve Havelka of Pokey the Penguin! and Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. These two are not what you think of when you talk about “artistic” or “worldly” comics, but they produce interesting and entertaining results nonetheless. My favorite was the story by Monsieur le Chien, who took the time out to draw a strip chronicling not only his search for and encounter with a Japanese person, but also his previous thoughts on the Japanese (and also stereotypes of Frenchmen driving through the countryside in a Citroen Chevaux 2).

Moresukine is a quick read that can be confusing at times, but it provides an interesting and non-judgmental look at the culture of Japan through the eyes of a foreigner, all while not being afraid to experiment with the layout of a traditional comic.

Moresukine: Uploaded Weekly From Tokyo
written and illustrated by Dirk Schwieger
published by NBM Publishing (New York, 2008)
ISBN 978-1-56163-537-5