Archive for the ‘race’ Category

Illustrating the March for Civil Rights

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Due to their pictorial nature, comics are sometimes thought of as being easier to read, which is why there are those who look down upon them as something for the young and uneducated. But there are those who see their ease-of-reading as a strength, a way to spread a message to those who cannot or will not read large blocks of text.

Among these advocates is US Congressman John Lewis, who recently signed a deal with Top Shelf to co-write a comic (with his aide, Andrew Aydin) about the struggle for civil rights in the United States. It’s a subject near-and-dear to his heart, as he was heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s: he helped organize and was a keynote speaker for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 (where the “I Have a Dream” speech was given by Martin Luther King Jr.), and led the first march from Selma to Montgomery that became known as “Bloody Sunday” when they were attacked by state troopers.

Chris Staros, John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin

Aydin and Lewis were driven to action by a comic from 1953 titled The Montgomery Story, which told the story of the Montgomery bus boycotts and inspired many people to join the Freedom Rides. It was recently translated into Arabic and Farsi by activist Dalia Ziada, and Lewis has stated that he believes it helped inspire the protests in Egypt earlier this year, as thousands of copies were distributed across the Middle East.

No artist has been announced for Lewis and Aydin’s graphic novel yet, which is set for release in 2012.

(via Bleeding Cool and Newsarama)

Liberty and Fraternity

Friday, December 24th, 2010

World War II is the most popular war depicted in comics, most likely due to the fact that the modern comic book industry co-existed with the war, and those creators came up with ideas and characters that linger in continuity even today. But other historical conflicts continue to make their mark in comics, such as the American Revolution in the Lagos Brothers’ Sons of Liberty.

Sons of Liberty is a work of historical fiction, which may seem out of place on this blog, but considering we’ve written about real science couched in science fiction and culinary lessons embedded in a dramatic manga, using a fictional story to teach history isn’t completely off-base. Unfortunately, Sons of Liberty is loose with facts and its accuracy is shaky to non-existent, focusing on two escaped slaves that gain superhuman powers.

The story takes place in a number of real locations and features Benjamin Franklin and his son, but these places and these characters could have been anywhere and anyone, adding nothing unique to the story; Benjamin and William Franklin are really only there for the electricity angle they can add. The book spends a lot of time focusing on the two boys as escaped slaves, a point that is repeatedly hammered in for the reader, as they are abused by their slave master, chased down by a slave hunter, discriminated against by the world at large, and helped by kindly white men who believe that “all men are created equal,” so to speak. The real icing on the cake is when one of these kindly white guys teaches the two boys, Graham and Brody, an African martial art. At this point we’ve left any kind of historical analysis, choosing instead to follow a role of empowerment, similar to the current Hudlin-era of Black Panther.

And there is the main narrative problem with this series; if Graham and Brody really existed with the superhuman powers and skills they gain in this volume, then the American Revolution and the practice of slavery in the United States would have ended quite differently. Superheroes existed in World War II and the writers had to come up with ways to explain why Superman didn’t just capture Hitler and end the war right then and there. Though the Sons of Liberty are not Superman, it is not unreasonable to say that they would have a huge impact on history if they really existed.

Besides the historical accuracy problems, the storytelling, both in its text and art, is poor. The story plods along, introducing characters and situations bit-by-bit that go nowhere, promising a payoff that never comes in this volume. One particular nitpick I have is that Brody sometimes calls Graham “Grey” with no explanation; I assume it’s a nickname but this is never clearly explained and really only serves to confuse the reader, as do many other things in the book. As for the art, the coloring is more complex than the static and unclear pencil work it supplements, and the colorist has a strange habit of choosing one color for each page and bathing everything in shades of that color. Some pages are yellow, or blue, or purple-tinged; there is never a balanced mixture of colors, leaving each page feeling either washed-out or too dark. This is particularly harmful in the action sequences, which are unclear and poorly paced to begin with.

Overall, the book feels incomplete; incomplete visually, emotionally, and most of all, plot-wise. Everything is setup for future volumes, and we never actually see the heroes that are promised to us by the cover illustration, merely two scared little boys.

Sons of Liberty
written by Alexander and Joseph Lagos
art by Steve Walker
color by Oren Kramek
letters by Chris Dickey
published by Random House (New York, 2010)
ISBN 978-0-375-85670-09

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

American Born Airbender

Monday, June 14th, 2010

When last we covered Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese, on this here blog, it was all about his previous religious graphic novels.  This time, we’re getting a little less biblical, and a lot more critical.  See, Gene has some opinions about that The Last Airbender movie coming soon, which is devoid of Asians, even though the original source material, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was full of them.  So what does a writer/artist do when he has a take on a particular issue?  He draws it!

As a fellow fan of the animated Last Airbender, I do have my doubts and trepidations about the live-action movies.  I’m worried that all the fun and humor that made the Airbender cartoon what it is will be missing from the adaptation.  After an interview with M. Night Shyamalan that io9 posted back in March, those fears tripled.  To summarize, he stated that the decision to cast white kids as Katara and Sokka stemmed from how his kids related to Katara, even though they didn’t look like she did.  So if his daughter can see Katara in herself, why can’t we see a white kid as Katara and still relate to her?  Well, I think he also missed the part where his children are of Indian lineage, and do share similar features to the characters in their complexion and overall appearance.

But I digress.  To the fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and especially to Gene Luen Yang, there was an intentional lack of diversity in the casting from the start, because according to Hollywood, an American audience (especially kids) needs other “Americans” as the stars of a movie to go see it.  Of course that doesn’t account for the popularity of actors such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but their response would be that those are grown-ups, not kids.  And sure, casting Dev Patel does bring some color to the project, but that was done more out of Slumdog Millionaire than it was his fit for the character of Zuko.

Although Yang would prefer you not spend the dough to do so, let’s see just what America, and the world’s, reaction is to the film once it is released.  As for me, I will probably still spend the $12 to go see it at least once in theaters, because my curiosity-factor remains at its peak.  Oh, and I want to see live-action Momo.

Baseball Comics

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

When I was growing up, one of the first comic books I ever read was a baseball comic. It was by some very small publisher and I remember finding it on a spinner rack in a convenience store on East 15th Street and Kings Highway in Brooklyn. The store is still there but the spinner rack is not, much to my chagrin. The comic in question was about All-Star and Hall of Fame center-fielder Mickey Mantle, who was the centerpiece of the New York Yankees outfield for years. I don’t remember much about the title other than its cover, which was striking to me at the time with a somewhat on the money rendition of the famous baseball player. Other than that very issue, baseball comics have not nearly as prevalent as one would expect from a society that coined the game in the first place. I mean sure there were comics back in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but not much modern stuff to come by. In Japan that is very different, with baseball manga found all over, both as biographical and fictional material. I could go on and on about why American society never really embraced baseball comic books but I won’t, for your sake.

Instead, I will go about mentioning a comic book I will be purchasing in about two minutes that is exactly what I was hoping to find.

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow is a book written by James Sturm with art by Rick Tommaso that tells the story of Satchel’s career from the eyes of a sharecropper in the American South. For those of you unfamiliar with the name Satchel Paige, he was the first black pitcher in the Major Leagues and the oldest player to make his debut at age 42. In the ComixMix review, Andrew Wheeler describes the book as “profoundly worthy.”

There’s no other reason for Satchel Paige to exist; it’s a book about a man who played baseball so well that even racists had to admit his abilities.

If not for people like Satchel Paige, the game of baseball would be quite a different place today. I’m looking forward to learning more about the guy, especially from the view of an observer as opposed to a straight biography or autobiography. The book is available on Amazon and other retailers for $10 and under, so if you’re looking to get a history of one of the most influential ball players of our time, look no further.