Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Drama

I really enjoyed Raina Telgemeier's last book, the multiple award winning Smile, so I was very much looking forward to reading this book, Drama. It focuses on the goings on in a middle school theater club. The title has at least two meanings, the first being that the story focuses on the technical aspects of putting on a school musical. The main character is Callie, the set designer of the show, and we get to see her several challenges, including working within a budget, making and moving sets, and getting a special effects cannon to work. I was in one musical in high school, and I have to say that I could relate to these aspects of the book.
The second meaning of the title has to do with the interpersonal relationships between cast members and the school at large. Not only do we get to see the politics of a demanding leading lady and how all the other actors have to deal with various obstacles, we also get a look into Callie's relationships and crushes. There are a couple of brothers, Greg and Matt, with whom she has grown up, who clumsily court her. Life gets further complicated when newcomers Justin and Jesse come to this school. Justin comes out as gay to Callie pretty early on, and he is very interested in being a performer in the show. Justin is more reserved and a wildcard, and Callie starts hanging out with him and develops feelings.  I don't mean to make Callie just seem boy crazy, because she is more complex than just that, but she is caught up in the vortex of figuring out how romance works. Overall, I felt that Telgemeier did an excellent job getting at how confusing, awkward, and hopeful middle school relationships (in terms of both romance and friendship) can be.

As you can see from the excerpts above, Telgemeier's art style is very attractive and colorful. I feel that it is deceptively simple looking, as she is able to convey much emotion and action with relatively few lines. Also, she is adept at varying her presentations at times, with some scenes being more large montages and other more focused on specific exchanges. My one quibble really is that at times I felt there was a little too much exposition in the text, but those instances were few.

I understand that some of the personal issues of sexuality that come up in this book have made it  controversial in some places, to the point of it being removed from libraries, but I did not feel that there was anything prurient here and that these situations seemed very realistic and human. I feel more and more issues of sexuality are coming to the fore in young people's lives, and those are better discussed than ignored or shunned. That certainly seems to be the tenor of this group of young people who discussed the book as part of the YALSA Hub Challenge. Eti also has a well detailed defense of the book in this blog post.

Drama has received its share of accolades and was named a Stonewall Honor Book and a Harvey Award Nominee. Ada Calhoun had many positive comments about the story and artwork: "Telgemeier’s momentum-building visual style veers from leisurely montages during rehearsals to dramatic moments like the sharp half-page describing a disaster on show night." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and summed up, "With the clear, stylish art, the strongly appealing characters and just the right pinch of drama, this book will undoubtedly make readers stand up and cheer." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review and concluded, "Telgemeier’s manga-infused art has some moments of heartache, but the generally cheerful and affirming story should be eagerly devoured by her many fans."

There is a book trailer and much more info on the author's official page. A preview is available here from the book's publisher, Scholastic.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mental Floss's 10 Great Kids Comics for Early Readers

http://mentalfloss.com/sites/default/files/logo_mental_floss.png

When it comes to comics and graphic novels, there are a couple of areas that stick out as places where there might not be so many great resources. One of those is in the area of mathematics, and another is in books for early readers. Mental Floss has a good write-up here for books for those children/students.

Go check it out!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Power Lunch: First Course

Power Lunch: First Course is an interesting take on superheroes for younger readers. It stars a boy named Joey who is the new kid in school and looks a little bit like Clark Kent. He as strange dietary restrictions, and is only allowed to eat foods that are white. He meets and befriends Jerome, who used to be the new, weird kid and looks a little like Jimmy Olsen. He is bullied by a taller boy named Bug, and one of the main plots of the book is about how the duo deal with him.
 

The plot twists when Joey eats some trail mix (which is not white) and manifests superpowers. It turns out that whenever he eats other foods, he gains different sets of powers. These powers comes in handy when dealing with a bully, but they also might give him a leg up when he tries out for the soccer team (see what I did there? HA!). That last bit raises an ethical quandary about using his abilities, which will get taken up in the second book, aptly named Seconds.

For the most part, I found this book pretty enjoyable. The artwork is clear and bright, and I feel that the story is pitched well to children without being condescending. Its depictions of bullying seemed realistic and upsetting, which is appropriate. But there was one aspect that also bothered me about the ending. It seemed abrupt to me and also troubled me because Joey decides to use his powers to scare the bully into behaving. I know that the message may be to take up for yourself and also to stand by your friends, but I also was left with the impression that Joey is sort of a bully himself with how he handled the situation. Maybe this point also gets addressed in the sequel, but I felt it was a strange way to end things here.

This book is a collaboration between writer J. Torres and artist Dean Trippe. Torres has written a number of comics aimed at younger audiences, including the Jinx series and Alison Dare stories, as well as the autobiographical The Copybook Tales, and a number of titles for the big two comic book companies. Trippe is known for his webcomic Butterfly, his work with the website Project: Rooftop, and his autobiographical comic about dealing with sexual abuse Something Terrible.

The reviews I read about this book pointed to its positive qualities but also brought up some reservations. Jamais Jochim praised the art and pacing but also wrote, "This is a young man learning to use his abilities in at least marginally selfish ways, and it feels just a little off," but added, "This is a good start to a series; here’s hoping it gets better." Eric enjoyed the plot and artwork and also commented that the book had "a great approach to the real issue of bullies that embraces a non-violent, but assertive response." Stephen Theaker offer these thoughts, "Older kids may find the lack of substance underwhelming; younger children might be upset by the bullying scenes. To get a kid’s-eye view, I asked my daughters to take a look, but it failed their first test: 'Is there a girl in it?'”

Power Lunch is published by Oni Press. Comic Book Resources offers a preview here

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Jinx: Little Miss Steps

Little Miss Steps is the second volume of Jinx, which is a young adult update of Li'l Jinx, a classic Archie back-up character. I loved the first volume, and this one is a worthwhile follow-up. The plot revolves around three major points: Jinx is having a tough time with her mother, there are baseball/softball tryouts, and there is a big dance coming up. Jinx hardly seems to see her mom, who is divorced from her father, because she works so much, and this absence is wearing on her. Part of the reason why is that her mom has a  huge issue to talk about with her, and (SPOILER COMING) she does not know exactly how to broach the issue that she is a lesbian with her daughter. I appreciated how well, sensitively, and realistically this whole conversation played out in the course of the book. Not everyone was OK with the situation, and they, the children and the adults, have multiple reactions. There were no pat answers, and in the end I liked how the various characters reacted to each other.
The other two issues in the plot are more minor, for sure, and act as YA subplots dealing with sexism, school politics, and young romance. The Jinx-Charlie-Greg triangle is still going strong, and it is refreshing to see young people who obviously care about each other but do not know exactly how to take each other interact. They make mistakes, are frequently clumsy, and seem like genuinely good people. Plus, there are lots of humorous situations along the way that make the story enjoyable.

This book was created by the same team as book one. Writer J. Torres has created various wonderful comics in the past, including the autobiographical The Copybook Tales, adventure stories starring Alison Dare, and other comics for the big two comics companies. Eisner Award-winning artist Rick Burchett is known for his work on Batman and Superman Adventures. Inker Terry Austin has worked with almost every major artist at every big company and is probably best known for his run on Uncanny X-Men. Their artistic collaboration is expert, accomplished, and it suits the tenor and tone of the story well.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been complimentary. John Hogan wrote, "Everything plays out in a realistic manner without ever condescending to the reader, and Torres deserves credit for never missing a beat with the humor and levity that define these stories." Win Wiacek offered this praise, "Compellingly funny, gently heart-warming and deftly understated, this is book that will certainly resonate with kids and parents, offering genuine human interactions rather than manufactured atom-powered fistfights to hold your attention." Brian Cronin summed up his review, "It’s a great comic work and I hope Archie keeps making ‘em." Sadly, I have to say they have not yet offered another follow-up.

 Jinx: Little Miss Steps was published by Archie. Comic Book Resources offers a preview here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reading with Pictures

Reading with Pictures is a non-profit organization started by comics creator Josh Elder, who is known for his work on Mail Order Ninja. He, like me, thinks that comics are very engaging and found comics to be a large part of his diet when he was learning to read. He is seeking to make connections between comics and learning standards, and one of his projects is to make a textbook composed entirely of comics, which is what we have here. This volume was funded in part via a Kickstarter campaign, and it contains a number of comics stories sorted by content area.

Being that I am an educator by trade, and that I am a reading education person to boot, I am pretty much inclined to like this book. I have to say though, I am not thrilled with the tagline, "Comics That Make Kids Smarter," pretty much for the argument Tim O'Neil made when talking about books. Reading itself does not make a person smarter, but it is the content of the material, whether it be stories, nonfiction descriptions, or otherwise, that engages people and helps them think and perhaps amass some background knowledge through the process. And some books are better than others at doing those things.

So, how did this book do, you ask? Well, let me start with the good parts.There are some top-notch creators involved in this book, including Roger Langridge, Fred Van Lente, Ryan Dunlavey, and Chris Schweiser. For the most part, the artwork in this book was attractive and vibrant. And there were a couple of excellent entries:

I am a sucker for Van Lente and Dunlavey's work in the past, and their "George Washington...Action-President!" entry was no disappointment. I felt it offered a measured look at a vastly important historical figure that offered a complex picture of the man, warts and all.
Additionally, I had never read Chris Schweiser's Crogan Adventures until "The Black Brigade" tale offered here, but I will need to dig into some more soon. His account of Colonel Tye and a brigade of freed slaves fighting during the Revolutionary War was absorbing, dramatic, and very well rendered.
I have to say I was excited to see a mathematics section, because there are so few engaging and informative graphic novels about math, but I felt let down by these entries. One of the big problems I had with the book is characterized in the math story "Probamon" by Geoffrey Golden and Nathan Pride. It is a parody of the formerly ubiquitous Pokemon, and the jokes are pretty juvenile, mostly puns and poking fun at the protagonists (and I am OK with those, given the audience). But the danger of popular culture references such as this one, and they are pretty frequent in this book, is that they become quickly dated. I actually was amused by this story and I found it likeable enough, but I wonder how students five years from now might take it, or if they would even get the references. The story relies on the assumption that the reader knows how the game works and also that the reader can relate the concept of probability to its rules. So if such connections are not made, I wonder how successful or potentially bewildering this story might be.
“Probamon,”

Other stories in this book were less successful, for a variety of reasons. Some I felt were uninteresting in how they presented information, like comics stories with information thrown in. Some felt very pedantic and leaden in their delivery, like boring lectures. I know this book is aimed at elementary readers, but they can handle relatively complex information if it is presented in interesting ways. In the end, I felt that there were a couple of really great, engaging, and informative stories mixed with a bunch of tales full of clunky exposition and a few I felt were a waste of time. The biggest problem with this book is the problem with most textbooks: it tries to do too much. There are some factual and editing errors; the content seems thin and forced in most stories; and overall the book is inconsistent. I love puns, academic knowledge, and comics, but I felt disappointed reading most of this book.

It was an ambitious undertaking, and I think that I would have a difficult time finding much worth in any book that tried to shoehorn all of language arts, math, science, and social studies into its pages. There are a few graphic novels that I think would work excellently as textbooks, but they have much more of a focused topic. Off the top of my head, I can think of these in biology, world history, US history/government, World War I, and economics.

The reviews I have read for this book have been, at best, very mixed. Kirkus Reviews summed the book up as "wildly uneven in execution." Nick Smith recommended the books for classrooms and libraries but also commented that "not every segment is a brilliant success." Gretchen Wagner wrote, "Most of the pieces I did find both engaging and informative, but others I felt took too much exposition to introduce characters and backstory before getting to the concept, and others I could not find the point at all (although they were fun to read)." Jacob Canfield eviscerated the book in his review, writing "Despite all the good intentions in the world, The Graphic Textbook is a waste of money and time. With only a couple exceptions, none of the comics in this book are worth reading for any reason, much less educational ones."
Despite all the good intentions in the world, The Graphic Textbook is a waste of money and time. With only a couple exceptions, none of the comics in this book are worth reading for any reason, much less educational ones. - See more at: http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/10/leave-those-kids-alone-the-graphic-textbook-reviewed/#sthash.NYVrNoKD.dpuf

A preview, teachers guide, and more information about Reading with Pictures is available here from its publisher Andrews McMeel.
Would elementary students get this reference? Bueller? Anyone?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Will Eisner Week, Day 7: A Contract with God

Before I close out Will Eisner Week, I probably should talk about the book that is credited with popularizing the term "graphic novel." A Contract with God was Will Eisner's first attempt to publish a book of comics aimed specifically at adults. It eventually came out in 1978, well after Eisner had established himself as a comics creator (you can read about his career here), and it shows his literary aspirations.

Ironically, this book is not so much a novel at all but a collection of four thematically related stories. Still, the term graphic novel still stuck, and the name gets used to this day when referring to all kinds of books that contain comics (I talk more about that point here).

In any case, this book contains four stories. The first is the title tale, about a rabbi whose faith is tested after the death of his daughter.
The second, "The Street Singer" is about a woman who used to be an opera singer trying to mentor a young man into a singing career.
The third is "The Super," about an antisemitic building superintendent who finds himself the victim of crime.
The last, "Cookalien" is a tale of some city dwellers vacationing in the Catskills.
As you can see, none of the subjects of these stories were typical of the comics of the time, and this book marked a move toward telling a wider range of fictional stories through sequential art.

Many have commented on the memorable, impactful comics in this book, though their mileage has varied. Peter Schjeldahl commented on Eisner's bombastic style and summed this work up as full of "cornball histrionics." Andy Shaw commented that "the book barely shows its age despite its venerable years." I am probably most sympathetic with Timothy Callahan who wrote, "Will Eisner may never be subtle, but he’s often unforgettable, and that’s as true here as it is anywhere."

A Contract with God is currently published by W. W. Norton & Company, and they have a preview and more available here.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Happy Will Eisner Week, Day 6: Superbitch! Volume One

Today, I review another graphic novel funded via Kickstarter for Will Eisner Week.
Superbitch! is a superhero story turned on its head, a commentary on hero worship, celebrity, popular culture, and capitalism. Superbitch used to be a run of the mill superheroine, but she decided that charity work was for suckers and that she should get paid for her services. She is petty, materialistic, drinks maybe a little too much, and solves her problems by punching them dead in the face. The two main members of SB's supporting cast, who try their best to ground her, are Art Hobo, a childhood friend who has a bachelor's degree in art and a lot of debt, and Quinn, a smart computer expert who keeps her up to date with technology and pitches in as needed.

I think this collection is full of fun action sequences, clever situations, and laughs. At the start of this book, most of the comics are sketchier, one-off gags that frequently have pop culture references like this one:
But after a few pages, you can see a distinct and cleaner art style evolve. Also, there are more sustained storylines, where Superbitch runs for mayor, deals with a jerk of an ex-boyfriend, and assists Art Hobo when a super-powered debt collector comes a-calling.
I really enjoyed these comics, particularly how they play with and ridicule the often ludicrous conventions of superhero comics.

Superbitch! creator Kennedy Cooke-Garza is a recent graduate from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has an online portfolio of her artwork and various projects here. For those interested, she talks about "comics, superheroes and creativity" in this interview.

I was only able to locate a couple of reviews for this book, and they were both positive. Brian Cronin had these positive words for the comic, "Cooke-Garza is a talented draftswoman, and her work has only gotten better as the series has gone along." Deborah Markus wrote on Goodreads, "It's ridiculously over-the-top wrong, and it kills."

If you are interesting in buying this book or following her continuing adventures, Superbitch! is regularly updated here. Also, as you can see from the title and the sample pages, there are frequent profanities and adult situations, so this book is recommended for those mature enough to handle both.
To serve and protect.