Monday, February 20, 2017

The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America

The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America is an expertly researched and told nonfiction story of two massive historical figures and their effects on US history. In order to tell both stories, the book employs alternating narratives, indicating which is which via a simple color scheme. Douglass's story is told in blue:
And Lincoln's in red:
Both biographies begin with respective childhoods and formative experiences that would come into play later in their lives. Along the way, I learned much about each person and major players of the time period. Also, there are deftly told accounts about slavery, the Civil War, and other historical contexts. That the creators were able to chronicle so much information while spinning compelling narratives and characters is extremely impressive. One of the features I admired most about this book is that it does not overly lionize either Douglass or Lincoln. Certainly they are shown to be impressive and important people, but they are also shown to have their own problems and human moments. I especially appreciated how Lincoln was not simply canonized as the Great Emancipator but was shown to wrestle greatly with many social concerns and pragmatic thoughts that conflicted with his idealism.

The artwork was also a huge positive about this book. There are many detailed panels that represent the time period very well. Additionally, there are multiple scenes where characters' emotions and feelings come through very powerfully. This book is both masterfully plotted and illustrated. It definitely brings history to life.

This book's creators Dwight Jon Zimmerman and Wayne Vansant also collaborated on another graphic history, The Vietnam War. Zimmerman is the author of a number of other books on military history as well as a producer of TV shows on that topic. Vansant began drawing comics decades ago with Marvel Comics' Savage Tales and The 'Nam, and he has drawn a number of historically-themed graphic novels including one about the D-Day battle at Normandy.

Reviews and news I have read about the book have been positive. It was nominated for YALSA's 2013 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Hillary Brown concluded, "Anyone who doesn’t specialize in this material will learn something." Publishers Weekly summed it up as "a compelling look at two of the most important figures in American history." Viviane Crystal called it "a superb historical fiction story."

The Hammer and the Anvil was published by Hill & Wang, and there is a preview and more information available here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Decelerate Blue

The mark of a great book may be just how long it sits with you after you have finished reading it. I read this book and was pretty dissatisfied with the ending, but it keeps cropping up in my thoughts. Decelerate Blue is a science fiction tale set in a not-too-distant future where speeding up to keep up with societal and technological change is not just necessary, it's the law. Angela, a teenage girl, does not quite fit in here, and she resists many of the required "hyper" requirements, such as reading special novels, watching special movies, and going to a special mall. People even speak in rapid style, ending each speaking turn with a marker "Go." (This last feature was pretty maddening for me to read at the start of this book, but I eventually got used to it.) In this future, trying to slow life down is an act of resistance.
Angela's actions lead to some attention, unwelcome from some (like her parents) and welcome from others (like the mysterious person who drops her a copy of Kick the Boot, a novel that becomes the manifesto for an underground movement). Soon, she literally drops out of society, joins the resistance, and finds a potential romance in an unlikely place. Still, the establishment is very well organized and relentless, and things do not go well for the resistors in the end. I am not going to spoil it, but the ending was pretty bleak and left me with small feelings of hope and large feelings of despair. Still, it is a very affecting book, and that it stirred such emotions up in me is the hallmark of excellence. I have to say that the combination of artwork and narrative is pitch perfect for this sort of tale.

This book is a collaboration between writer Adam Rapp and artist Mike Cavallaro. Rapp is a Renaissance man who has worked on movies, music, novels, and play writing, and he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Cavallaro has worked in comics for a couple of decades now, with a number of graphic novels to his credit, including Foiled, Curses! Foiled Again, The Life and Times of Savior 28, and Parade (with fireworks).

All of the reviews I have read for this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "This is a strikingly illustrated book set in a potentially massive world, and readers will hope this isn't the only story to come from it." In a starred review from the School Library Journal Jordeana Kruse gave this verdict, "Fans of George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will find much to ponder in this notable graphic novel." April Spisak wrote that even though it is not happy "the conclusion remains complex and poignant."

Decelerate Blue was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here. There are some language and sexual situations that might not play well with younger readers, but I think that this book would be appropriate for older adolescents.

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

Friday, February 10, 2017

March: Book Two

The second book in a trilogy can feel padded out, like the author is laying the groundwork for the grand conclusion but still holding back on the "good stuff." I am happy to say that the second book of March does not fall into that trap, and I daresay it is even better than Book One. The framing sequence of Obama's 2009 Inauguration remains a constant, but the past events depicted left me breathless and astounded.
This book is a highly informative piece of nonfiction in terms of facts as well as emotions. So much is chronicled in this book, from the Freedom Riders to multiple sit-ins and protests in Nashville and Birmingham, to the March on Washington where co-author Congressman John Lewis was a prominent speaker and MLK delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. And most impressively, the many people and events packed into this book are all briefly and deftly identified, which was no small feat to accomplish.
What sits with me the most after reading this book is just how much brutality and hatred Lewis and his stalwarts had to deal with. This book does not hold back in its depictions of those who opposed the civil rights movement, and their actions rightly are cast in terrible light. And although it does not cast its heroes solely in the glowing light of the entirely innocent, it does show just how much patience and perseverance they needed. It also shows just how much pain and misery they had to go through in terms of beatings and imprisonment. Certainly, the stories and travails portrayed here are essential reading for any informed US citizen. I know I am behind, and I will likely have to wait some right now, but I am eager to read Book Three.

Lewis and his staffer Andrew Aydin penned the narrative for this book, and it was illustrated by Nate Powell, a veteran and expert creator with a long list of praised works, including the graphic novels The Silence of Our Friends, Swallow Me Whole, and Any Empire. As you can see from the excepts, Powell's artwork is dynamic and energetic, and he makes excellent tonal use of black and white to tell riveting, moving, and powerful tales, even when people are simply speaking. You can watch all three creators talk about this book in this interview.

This book won an Eisner Award and has been lauded by many. Etelka Lehoczky wrote, "Speeches and meetings might seem like dull stuff for a comic book — or, at least, like the dull parts of a comic book — but award-winning artist Nate Powell doesn't let that happen." Michael Cavna called it "a must-read monument." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and remarked, "Lewis, Aydin, and Powell’s combined experiences combine to recreate scenes of incredible feeling."

March: Book Two was published by Top Shelf, and they have a preview and much more available here. Book Three recently won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History

Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History does exactly what its title says. I was shamefully unfamiliar with most of the stories recounted in this volume, even that of the Noyes Academy. I single that one out because it was located in Canaan, NH, and it's a small town where I used to teach summer school. I had no idea that once a landmark school was located there.

There are many other stories told here in a straight-forward, semi-humorous fashion. These stories feature much courage and strength in the face of injustice, heartbreak, and misery. Some of these stories are about collective people, such as the shameful, racially motivated eviction of an entire community from Malaga Island. Most though are about exceptional individuals. There is the tale of Henry "Box" Brown who was literally mailed north to freedom.
Also, many forgotten figures are celebrated, like Bass Reeves, the most successful US Deputy Marshal; chess master Theophilus Thompson; magician Richard Potter, and bicycle champion Marshall Taylor aka "The Black Cyclone."
Like I noted above, there is an undercurrent of humor running through these sometimes difficult stories. One recurring funny feature is the flying baby birth, as seen in the "Box" Brown excerpt. Many of these tales start that way, and there are small jokes and asides from time to time. There is also the visual motif of the crow, which delineates the presence of Jim Crow enforcers and ways of thinking. Racial slurs are similarly represented pictorially, to good effect. These are stories directed toward a younger audience, but it does not hold back on showing the difficulties and hatred folks had to endure, as well as the will power needed to persevere through such conditions.

The artwork might seem too simple for some, but I think it is very expressive. Another critique I have seen from multiple sources that I agree with is that this book is very male-centered and also not so delicate about depicting Native Americans.

This book's creator Joel Christian Gill is the the Chair of Foundations at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Since publishing this book, he has embarked on creating and publishing extended biographies of African-Americans in his Tales of the Talented Tenth series. Thus far he has two volumes, on Bass Reeves and Bessie Stringfield, and he is working on at least a couple more. He speaks about his work on Strange Fruit in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Rob McMonigal called it "a wonderful addition to non-fiction comics." Allyce Amidon called it " visually witty, engaging, and well researched." And Megan Purdy called it "a great book that deserves to be read, discussed, shared and celebrated."

Strange Fruit was published by Fulcrum Publishing, and they have an excerpt and more available here.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt

Some might think a goddess in charge of childbirth, maiden women, the moon, and the forest, would be somewhat demure, but they would be very wrong. Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt tells the story of a goddess who is youthful, energetic, pristine, and downright deadly. This combination is becoming a common theme with this series, as Ares and Apollo have also been shown to be extremely beautiful but downright nasty as well. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised in the case of Artemis though. After all, she showed herself to be quite the badass when she assisted her mother Leto with delivering her own twin brother when she was little more than a week old.

The rest of the book does an excellent job in fleshing out the personality and characteristics of this complex character. And I have to say that the body count is pretty high. She and her brother Apollo slaughter the family of queen Niobe when she blasphemes against their mother. She turns the hunter Actaeon into a deer so he can be eaten by his own dogs after he dares peek at her while skinny-dipping. She tricks the twin monstrous giants Otus and Ephialtes into murdering each other. She also does in the mighty hunter Orion, who had became her compatriot but was so hurt when she refused his advances that he started to slaughter all the animals on Earth. The only respite from all the bloodshed in is in the recounting of the tale of Atalanta.

This is the ninth book in the Olympians series, and it is a very strong entry. I loved the way that a narrative was woven to connect all of these tales. I also loved how well the gods' personalities shine through in ways that reflect not just this book but also the other entries in this series. That all the books are this consistently excellent is amazing and commendable.

In addition to the numerous entries in the Olympians series, artist/writer George O'Connor has created the American history journal account Journey into Mohawk Country and the dystopian future book Ball Peen Hammer, written by Adam Rapp. He also has published a number of children's picture books. His work is typically excellent, and I very much appreciate his voice in the notes and back matter of the book. He gives great insight and humor about his choices. He speaks about his career in this interview.

Reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Kelly Fineman enjoyed the book and also noted, "O'Connor's notes are engaging and provide background material for much of the art and writing." Library Linsey wrote that he "continues to artfully share his knowledge of Greek myth in another dynamic graphic novel representation." Kirkus Reviews cautioned readers, "Admire her—from a distance—and don’t dis her or her mom."

Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more here.

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Troop 142

Troop 142 is a slice of life tale, an account of a Boy Scout camping trip set in 1995. We get to see the goings-on and drama between camp counselors and adolescent boys as the latter try to win badges for completing specific tasks and classes. Along the way, they all learn about what it means to be a man, sometimes lessons that are sad and disappointing. And of course, there are lots of pranks, hi-jinks, sneaking out at night, horrible jokes, bodily odors, macho posturing, and homophobia happening all of the time.
What really stood out to me about this book was how well it captures a bunch of social dynamics, from dads who are uncomfortable around each other, to boys trying to fit in, to both who work to ostracize and torture those they find different. Some of the boys (and dads) are peacocks, others loners, and more than a few feel vulnerable and unsure of themselves. The personalities here are strong ones, and I feel that there are many alternatives for a reader to relate to, wonder about, mock, and/or revile.
The story also touches on a number of social issues. There are undercurrents of religious and sexual intolerance discussed, and it is clear that although being a Scout entails learning skills and striving for virtue it also involves some level of discrimination toward others. Being set in the past allows the author some distance from the topicality of these issues, and it seems more recently things in the Scouts are changing (or have changed to some extent). Still, these issues still affect many of our lives on a daily basis.

Troop 142's creator Mike Dawson has written and drawn a few graphic novels, including Freddie & Me, Angie Bongiolatti, and Rules for Dating My Daughter. I like his expressive drawing style, especially in how he depcits his characters' emotional responses. And I am not alone in my admiration for his work, as he was nominated in the Promising New Talent category of the Ignatz Awards in 2002. He speaks about his career and work extensively in this interview.

Originally published online, this book won the 2010 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Online Comic, and I found much praise in its reviews. Joseph Thompson summed up that "this graphic novel will sharply divide its readers in terms of personal taste but not quality."in ways that the best books do: ways that surprise, and trouble, and delight." Rob Clough called it "a comic that’s not about the monstrous nature of adolescence or even the less pleasant truths about masculinity in particular, but rather one that focuses on the fragility of ego, the demands of social and cultural mores, and the ways in which we all fear humiliation and vulnerability."

Troop 142 was published by Secret Acres, and they have a preview and more info about the book here. This books features crass, juvenile humor; sexual situations, and profanity, but I feel it is no worse than what I heard while I was a teenager myself. Still, those  offended by such things might want to steer clear.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Murder By Remote Control

Today I like to say that we are living in the "golden age of comics" because of the sheer volume of excellent material being published in so many genres and for so many different audiences. The key year in this transition (in the US at least)  is usually cited as 1986, when Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the first volume of Maus were published. The book I am reviewing today is an original graphic novel that predates those publications, and it had a difficult time finding a publisher in the US at the time. So I am glad to get to read and experience it today.

Murder By Remote Control may have been written more than 30 years ago, but it is still a fresh, interesting, and provocative book. The plot is about the murder of an oil tycoon in coastal Maine, an act perpetrated with a remote control airplane.
There are only four houses in the remote location, and the detective on the case, a trench coat-wearing Zen Buddhist named Jim Brady, employs some unorthodox tactics in his investigations. The suspects themselves are a motley bunch: a reclusive farmer, a former high-price call girl, a film star, and a gun-toting, paraplegic ex-criminal (pictured).
Far from progressing in a straight line, this investigation takes some weird turns into drug-trafficking, local corruption, as well as philosophical ponderings of America, sex, and popular culture. These narrative turns are also accompanied by beautiful and surreal splash pages full of portentous images that are just ripe for interpretation. I feel that all of it could easily go off the tracks, but the plot is well-paced and, more importantly, the artwork helps anchor the whole enterprise. Not only is it beautiful to behold, the style is realistic and done in the style of Wally Wood and Jim Steranko, two of the most revered and copped US comics artists.

Murder By Remote Control was created by Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering and US artist Paul Kirchner. Van de Wetering was a crime novelist whose work has often been called "off-beat." Kirchner has had a long career, drawing comics for Heavy Metal, multiple toy companies, and The Big Book of series. He also has been a toy designer and today works mainly in advertising. He speaks at length about this book in this interview. He speaks more about his career and specifically about this collaboration with van de Wetering in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Win Wiacek called it "a delicious treat for the eyes and a therapeutic exercise for the mind." Gahan Wilson, in the original 1986 review, called it "an enjoyable entertainment that succeeds in demonstrating very effectively that this form of storytelling has a unique potential and can work a special kind of magic unavailable to any other medium."

This re-issue of Murder By Remote Control was published by Dover Publications, and they have more information about the book here. This book contains some nudity and sexual situations, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle both. This edition also has a couple of extra essays, one an introduction by Kirchner, the other an afterward by Steve Bissette, and I found both fun and informative to read.