Posts Tagged ‘Friday Book Review’

An Artist, Who Escapes

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The Holocaust is a subject that’s been covered in comics before, most notably in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but Lily Renée, Escape Artist is a graphic novel takes a lighter approach, mostly due to the fact that its subject was lucky enough to never be in a concentration camp, though she did suffer her own trials and travails as a result of being Jewish during the time of the Nazi regime.

Lily Renée Wilheim was a teenager when the Nazis invaded Vienna, which meant she was old enough to recall the events clearly, but also young enough to be shipped out as part of Kindertransport, which means the bulk of the biography focuses on events that aren’t often talked about in the greater narrative of Jewish oppression and the Holocaust. We follow Lily’s struggles as a Jewish refugee in England, being classified as an “enemy alien,” and finally her immigrant experience in America, which leads her to her ultimate status as a pioneer in women’s comics.

The book focuses on smaller details and anecdotes in Lily’s journey, like eating too much food on a train or working as a mother’s helper. This makes it easier for younger readers to relate to Lily, but it also leaves the book feeling a bit shallow since it barely touches upon the larger war narrative going on. Lily herself may not have been too concerned with the bigger picture, as she was doing her best to survive, but the book is very much written toward an educational bent, so more historical context would have been helpful in imparting a history lesson to its readers. Most of the heavy-lifting is left to the appendix in the back, which explains some of the finer historical details. In this manner, it reminds me of the American Girl books, except that those novels are definitely intended to focus on their storytelling first and foremost, better to relate to their audience of 10-year-old girls (and sell more dolls). They aren’t sold as educational materials.

The copy on the front and back covers of Lily Renée, Escape Artist seems to be aimed toward promoting a strong female role model, except that the aspect of her they promote—her comics work—is barely touched upon in the book. She doesn’t reach that point until the last few pages of the last chapter, and it really feels like they’re name-checking the titles she worked on. I would have liked to see sample pages from her work, or maybe more audience reactions, or some further indications of how this work changed her life, beyond that it paid for her mother’s operation and that one of the characters “was a fantasy” for her. If her work in comics is being used as a hook to get people to read this book, it should have gotten a lot of more page time. While I enjoyed the book, it ultimately felt unsatisfying.

Lily Renée, Escape Artist
story by Trina Robbins
pencils by Anne Timmons
inks by Mo Oh
published by Graphic Universe (New York, 2011)
ISBN 978-0-7613-8114-3


You Are Cordially Invited

Friday, June 17th, 2011

I have no plans to get married any time soon, but the trials and travails chronicled in Adrian Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage make me think that simply eloping is a good idea. Guest lists, music, food, registries, party favors—all the little details that go into planning a “proper” wedding are detailed here in short comic vignettes starring Adrian and his fianceé as they attempt to plan their own real-life wedding.

The book is cute with simple and lively illustrations, arranged in a nine-panel configuration on most pages with the occasional Family Circus one-panel homage. It’s easy to sympathize with the couple—weddings can be a complicated minefield of familial politics, for one thing—but the book doesn’t go into any of these issues in detail, and is over so quickly. But we should be grateful to even have the opportunity to read this graphic memoir at all, as the book was originally created as a party favor for the wedding guests—a fact that is chronicled in the book, and the Drawn & Quarterly version of it includes an epilogue chronicling the aftermath of the reception, in all its tired and awestruck glory.

Scenes from an Impending Marriage
by Adrian Tomine
published by Drawn & Quarterly (Montreal, 2011)
ISBN 978-770460-34-8

Not Very Fun at All

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Alison Bechdel is arguably the most famous lesbian in the comics industry, as the creator of the seminal comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, but for all the criticism and commentary she included in the strip over its twenty-five-year history, it wasn’t as personal as her graphic memoir Fun Home, which chronicled her own childhood, sexual orientation, and her complex relationship with her father.

That relationship certainly was complex; as we’re told early on, shortly before his death but after Alison had come out to her parents, she found out that her father had had relationships with other men. With so little time to talk to him before she died, Alison is left to figure out his sexuality on her own, examining old memories and re-contextualizing them with this new information.

The whole book is about context and subtext, looking at incidents and bits of dialog and asking, “What does this mean?” It’s almost similar to the kind of literary analysis that takes place in classrooms and book clubs, which makes it appropriate that the book is heavy in literary references. Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and a voracious reader, so Alison is constantly comparing his life to the books he loved, from the works of Fitzgerald and Camus to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. But while an English student will be asked how the events of an author’s life will influence their work, Alison is asking how their work influenced her father’s life.

The memoir is very dense in allusions and references, but not to the point of incomprehensibility to the average reader. I still found myself looking up the occasional word or fact, more out of curiosity than confusion. Fun Home is definitely a book that could benefit from an annotated edition.

As a narrative the book is not straightforward or chronological. Instead, it takes the format of human memory, Alison remembering certain incidents and laying out the circumstances surrounding them, then taking the future knowledge of his queer identity and his death and factoring that into each situation. This happens almost every chapter, with memories repeated and reiterated to the point where it feels like Bruce Bechdel dies not once, but again and again, brought back to life at the start of every chapter so a new incident can be re-examined. Knowing what will happen just feels like we’re circling a drain, going around and around until we finally fall in.

Fun Home is full of detail and heart, and it’s never boring. Alison Bechdel has a good mind for detail (as we learn, she’s been keeping a daily diary since she was 10) and each scene is loaded with nostalgia, inspiring me to think back on the shadows of my own childhood. But at the same time, her childhood is much darker and enigmatic, an emotional drain mitigated only by the choice of making the last chapter more positive. This is where Alison talks about those few incidents where her and her father found common ground, most notably through literature. While drawing on facts presented earlier in the book, it still feels off-kilter as we reach the conclusion, a hurried attempt to find meaning before the last page is turned. Perhaps this is how we should feel, to better reflect real life: unsatisfied and confused, but hopeful.

Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel
published by Mariner Books (New York, 2007)
ISBN 978-0-618-87171-1

A War with No Name

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Notes for a War Story by Gipi isn’t a work of nonfiction, but it was certainly inspired by real events—the author lives in northern Italy, right near the western border with Slovenia. If not for the fact that he lived in Italy, the fighting in the former Yugoslavia could have been his war, and his life. And the book is a reflection of that, the story of three teenagers lingering on the outskirts of war, never seeing it, but feeling its effects nonetheless.

Stefano/Little Killer, Christian, and Giuliano (the narrator) are three kids wandering through the countryside in an unnamed country, stealing stuff to sell and just looking to survive and maybe some day make it big. Giuliano is a bit of an outsider to the other two, because he was raised by two parents with good jobs, and really only left that life behind so he could fit in with his friends. He is filled with doubt about the things they do, but it is unclear to him—and even to us, the readers—if this is because these things are wrong, or because he “just doesn’t understand.”

We follow the trio as they become acquainted with a man named Felix, who pulls them into the business of organized crime and later into the war itself, in a reflection of the real-life connections between organized crime and factions in a civil war. The book doesn’t analyze or explain these connections—this is just the way it is, and when Giuliano actually has the intelligence and temerity to question that state of being, it separates him further from his friends.

The story itself can be a little hard to get into, but it quickly picks up and becomes a rather easy, though emotionally-detached read. The characters are designed with sketchy, awkward lines that succeed in illustrating the scene while generating feelings of unease. I appreciated how the protagonists looked like teenagers, even when their mood shifted from scared to sinister and points inbetween.

Notes for a War Story has had a share of accolades piled upon it, including the 2005 Goscinny Prize for Best Script and the honor of Best Book at Angoulême 2006. It’s a shame that we don’t see as much impact stateside, because this book has a lot to offer in terms of craft and subject.

Notes for a War Story
by Gipi
translated by Spectrum
published by First Second (New York, 2007)
ISBN 978-1-59643-261-1

Ask the Vegetable Garden

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Viz only released seven volumes of Oishinbo A la Carte in the United States, despite there being about twenty volumes to draw from (as well as over 100 volumes of the unabridged manga, but it’s understandable that no one wants to go through the massive undertaking of translating and releasing the entire series). The A la Carte volumes draw from the entire back catalog of Oishinbo adventures, and thus can be read in any order, which is how “Vegetables” came to be the final volume that I read. And it’s a personal shame, because the vegetable volume is probably the weakest of the entire series as released in English.

Many of the stories presented in Oishinbo have a very technical minded focus—how to cut, season, boil, grill, and so forth—with the stated intent to bring the best flavor out of the ingredients. With a lot of the food presented, the flavor and texture were often dependent on well each dish was prepared. This was especially prominent in the volumes on fish (including sushi and sashimi), rice, and sake. But with vegetables, the emphasis switches more to the quality of the ingredients. It’s not that the quality didn’t matter before, but here it is paramount and almost a given. As long as the vegetables are native to the area and not treated with pesticides and herbicides—a point hammered forth repeatedly in this volume—the vegetables will be delicious, and the characters must learn to appreciate that. Most of the stories are about how the goodness and purity of vegetables will bring people together and solve their problems. That’s fine in small doses, but in succession it can get boring.

The best story in A la Carte Vegetables is an installment of the ongoing Ultimate Menu vs. Supreme Menu battle, where Yamaoka and Kaibara Yūzan do battle with cabbages and turnips. The battles are some of the most exciting  parts of Oishinbo, so it’s good that they included one here. But even that story comes down to the goodness and purity of vegetables, and the way Yamaoka is always missing or misunderstanding some key ingredient has become rather formulaic after reading seven (much less a hundred) volumes.

Even with that repetition I still find the series an enjoyable read, and am sad to see the English-speaking world denied any further volumes of this addictive and mouthwatering manga.

Oishinbo A la Carte: Vegetables
story by Tetsu Kariya
art by Akira Hanasaki
translated by Tetsuchiro Miyaki
edited by Leyla Aker and Jonathan Tarbox
published by Viz Signature (San Francisco, 2009)
ISBN 978-1-4215-2143-5

Teeth and Consequences

Friday, March 18th, 2011

When I was a kid my mother used to constantly mention my crooked teeth, never sparing an opportunity to say I would probably need to get braces. That day never came—though my brother did have to get them—but I know I was incredibly lucky. However, even if I did have to get braces, I’d still be far luckier than Raina Telgemeier, who lost her two front teeth in sixth grade and then suffered the consequences for the next four years. She chronicles this journey of braces, retainers, false teeth, and more in her graphic memoir Smile, published by the Graphix imprint of Scholastic Books.

Raina is careful to explain every step of the process, showing her various visits to the dentist and orthodontist (and an unfortunate periodontist) and illustrating exactly what is happening to her teeth at that given point in time. It takes a lot of anxiety out of dental visits, making this ideal for pediatric dentists to give to their first-time patients, or any child patient about to undergo a major procedure.

Even removed from the dental context, the book has a lot of value for kids and tweens. The story of Raina’s toothy escapades is really just a framing device for those formidable years of her life, where she’s navigating that line between child and adult and figuring out what kind of person she wants to be. As Raina struggles with each new development in her mouth, she’s also making the transition from junior high to high school and reaching a point where she can actually choose her friends. The book has a lot to say about peer pressure, as her friends and classmates react to her teeth and other parts of her appearance with varying degrees of kindness and cruelty.

Raina Telgemeier is also the illustrator for The Baby-sitter’s Club Graphix line, so she’s well accustomed to drawing the trials of preteen girls, and this book continues that standard of excellence. The characters are cute and expressive, each panel crackling with life. The colors by Stephanie Yue are simple but bright, the background shades creating atmosphere despite a lack of detail.

Smile has proven to be very popular among the kid crowd, and why not? It’s got humor, hope, friendship, and love—all the things that should make you smile.

by Raina Telgemeier
colors by Stephanie Yue
published by Scholastic (New York, 2010)
ISBN 978-0-545-13206-0

How to Understand Israel… in 208 Pages or Less

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Comic artist Sarah Glidden has somewhat divided loyalties when it comes to the topic of Israel. As an American Jew, she is aware of the complicated history of the Holy Land, the Jewish people, and the desire/need for a Jewish state, but as a self-proclaimed progressive she is disgusted by the treatment of the Palestinians. In an effort to justify her opinions and finally put the matter to rest, she decided to take a Birthright trip to Israel, to “discover the truth behind this whole mess once and for all,” chronicling the experience in her graphic memoir, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less.

For those unfamiliar, Birthright Israel is a program where young Jewish adults (ages 18–26) are taken on all-expenses-paid, 10-day tours of Israel. The general purpose of the program is to strengthen Jewish identity and engender positive feelings about Israel, wherein lies the flaw in Sarah’s plan, and perhaps the book. She goes on this trip knowing that they are probably going to put some spin on many of the hot-button political issues, so she treats everything with a dollop of cynicism and waits for those “gotcha” moments where she can be right and they can be wrong. It can come across as irritating, especially when you consider that the trip is a free perk and some of her fellow travelers, like her friend Melissa, are just trying to have a good time. Melissa provides a good counterbalance to Sarah because she was raised in a pretty secular household and this trip represents a chance to reconnect with her Jewish roots.

With Sarah and Melissa as travel companions, the book provides an interesting look at Israel outside the usual tourist hot spots of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Those cities are included on the Birthright trip, but we also visit the Golan Heights, the city of Holon, the Negev desert, several kibbutzim, and the Dead Sea. Each section is accompanied by a map, and of course, the entire book is done in simple (but lovely) pencil drawings with watercolor. Though Glidden’s drawings are not overly realistic, they are detailed and colorful enough to give you a good sense of place and her people have just the right amount of expression to convey feeling.

Yet as a travel memoir the book can be frustrating. As a carefully scripted trip, Sarah can only see and experience so much, and it feels like her Birthright group spends a lot more time in and out of centers and lectures than it does actually exploring the country. Their trip to Jerusalem seemed so brief, as it took them to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum), and a mall. We don’t really get a “feel” for the city until the Birthright trip is over, and Sarah and Melissa take an extra day to explore the city on their own.

The highlight of the trip might be the group’s trip to Masada, where the Birthright participants climb to the top of the plateau and visit the remains of the fortress on top, where they are told a story of the “brave defenders” who held out against a Roman incursion for years, before eventually choosing to take their own lives in defiance. Sarah comes prepared for this, reading the original account in order to pick out the falsehoods in the account that Birthright feeds her. It stands out as one of the few instances where Sarah’s cynicism works to her, and the reader’s, advantage.

As the trip wears on so does it wear down on Sarah, and she begins to doubt herself and her beliefs, realizing that the issues of Israel are more complicated than she probably thought, and that there are no easy or obvious answers. She leaves the country knowing more and less as the same time, feeling confused and perhaps even a little empty. The book ends like the trip does, with notes of doubt and uncertainty, conflicting ideals and an overwhelming sense of “it’s complicated.” It’s a real downer after a book that is at times funny, charming, thought-provoking, and rarely ever boring.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
by Sarah Glidden
published by Vertigo (New York, 2010)
ISBN 978-1-4012-2233-8

A Post-War Postcard

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Despite not being as long or as seminal as other epic works such as Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Alan’s War by Emmanuel Guibert is probably the longest I’ve ever taken in reading a graphic novel. It’s just so rich and dense, with so much information packed into every page and panel, that you can’t just breeze through it. Nor should you—this is the story of a man’s life, and what a life it was.

Alan’s War is the story of Alan Cope, a young man from California in the ’40s who like many young men his age back then, found himself drafted into the army and sent overseas to fight in World War II. “Fight” being a very loose term in his case, as he was drafted late into the war, and by the time he finally got sent to France, the war was mostly over. So he finds himself moving from place to place, performing mostly administrative and cleanup work, learning a lot about Europe (and life) in the process. He ended up living there after the war, which is how he met Emmanuel Guibert, the comic artist who took their conversations and transcribed them into this beautiful book. Guibert is not a speaking presence in this graphic novel; Guibert was the audience then as the reader is now.

Guibert chose to keep his dialog and pacing as true to Alan’s original delivery as possible. As such it is very comfortable, measured, and occasionally contradictory. Guibert notes these contradictions in the introduction, but they do not detract from the story one bit. I found it very easy to follow, even when Alan’s account gets sidetracked as he tries to sneak in smaller anecdotes and bits of information into the narrative, and even with all the people Alan met it was relatively easy to keep them straight, though I found myself at times flipping back to try and remember who he was talking about.

The book is actually a collection, as the novel was originally published in three volumes back in France. The first volume or chapter, covers Alan’s training and stateside experiences, while the second chapter is his travels through Europe. The final chapter is more of an epilogue, as Alan basically goes through a laundry list of what happened to him and all his friends: some moved away and he lost touch, some he was reunited with, and others died. As a resident of the 21st Century it’s fascinating to see how Alan was able to track down people without the Internet, using only letters and phone calls and coming up pretty successful most of the time. He even wrote to Henry Miller at one point and got an answer regarding the whereabouts of a couple of dear friends.

The narrative shines in this graphic novel, but the art is also beautiful to behold. Many panels may seem empty, but what few elements Guibert does put in them convey so much information. His facial expressions are charming, but the real standouts are his landscapes. Some are almost indistinguishable from photographs, the detail being so rich.

I really enjoyed this book; it was funny and charming, and provided a look at military life that was more humble and less violent than the portrayals we’re used to getting. Guibert is right in that Alan Cope was a natural storyteller, though he sells himself short: Guibert is excellent as well.

Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope
by Emmanuel Guibert
translation by Kathryn Pulver
lettering by Céline Merrien
published by First Second (New York, 2008)
ISBN 978-1-59643-096-9

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.

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