Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Arrival

The Arrival is ironically our last entry for this Not Quite A Graphic Novel Month.

A New York Times Best Illustrated Book, it is a wordless look into a fantasy world of strange creatures, fantastic cityscapes, and people trying to find their places. The story follows a father as he leaves his young family. It seems that dragons are overtaking their homeland and they need to establish a home in a new land. After a train ride, he finds himself in a place where he has troubles communicating, he has to find work, and he has to figure out common tasks like finding food, cooking, and paying bills. Along the way he meets others who help, or sometimes complicate, his task to reunite with his wife and daughter.

Shaun Tan is an Australian author and animator. He has created a number of picture books, including The Red Tree, The Rabbits, and Tales from Outer Suburbia. He also directed the Oscar winning animated short, The Lost Thing. Tan does an excellent job with the drawings in The Arrival, made to resemble old photographs in a scrapbook. There is an immediate recognition of emotions, relationships, and activities, even though the scenery and imagery are often imagined and surreal. It offers an accessible, magnificent reading experience. He speaks in more depth about his work on the book in this interview with the School Library Journal (SLJ).

The list of blurb writers on the back of this book includes a who's who of comics creators and artists, including Brian Selznick, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, David Small, and Craig Thompson. It has been a very well reviewed book. Kirkus Reviews called it "an unashamed paean to the immigrant’s spirit, tenacity and guts, perfectly crafted for maximum effect." Gene Yang described it as "mesmerizing" and wrote that "reading The Arrival feels like paging through a family treasure newly discovered up in the attic." Elizabeth Bird summed up saying it was "the best book published in America in 2007."

A number of preview images are available in this detailed write-up by SLJ's Elizabeth Bird. More information about the book, including a book talk and interview with the author, are available from the book's publisher, Scholastic.

Why it is not quite a graphic novel: This book has everything a graphic novel should have but words. It is more an illustrated book than a graphic novel. That said, it is impressive how well Tan strings together images and panels, interspersing personal, emotional details with double page spreads that show the scope and grandeur of this world.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An article about the state of US superhero comic books at... The Wall Street Journal?!?!

 (Disclaimer: I totally copped the WSJ image.)

Tim Marchman comments on the failure of comics publishers to gain any market bump from the massive movie successes of some of this properties, the industry's overall continued poor treatment of creators, and the irony of these situations at at time when it seems comics is enjoying a time of great creativity and expansion in other areas.

My initial reactions:

  • Comic book publishers keep pushing out lots and lots of padded six-issue storylines so they can publish them as trade paperbacks. This strikes me literally as the "1000 monkeys pounding on keyboards" theory of writing. Eventually they hope they will strike upon a perennial best-selling book, like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, or The Infinity Gauntlet. In the meantime, this process makes for a whole lot of junk coming out and precious few quality books. 
  • Also, there is no substantial reward to any creator to make one of those books for a big publisher when in the long run it seems that if their work is successful, they will only get some royalties (which seem like peanuts in compensation) coupled with having little or no creative control. I cannot see why anyone would try to be creative at one of these companies then, other than to fulfill a dream to work on a property they themselves enjoyed, which is a sentimental but ultimately not-so-profitable endeavor.  
  • Furthermore, creators are lucky apparently to have their names mentioned in the credits. If anything, having your name in the end credits is the equivalent of legal small print. As long as they give some credit to the creators, no matter how slight or buried, the company is covered. Not much of a career aspiration for a comics artist, to be three lines up from Best Boy or Catering Services...
  • I have not been impressed by any of J. Michael Straczynski's comic work (thus no links from me), and Marchman's line that the upcoming batch of Watchmen sequels was the "rough equivalent of having Z-movie director Uwe Boll film a studio-funded prequel to Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver'" was particularly well taken.

In any case, go read it and see what you think...

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Not Quite A Graphic Novel Month steams along with today's entry, The Caldecott Medal winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

This thick book is chock full of beautiful, evocative drawings that pack quite an emotional punch. They are very reminiscent of silent film images, with their quiet energy and instant empathetic appeal. The illustrations sometimes also resemble flip books or old time photographs. The story follows Hugo, a 12 year old orphan who secretly lives in a Paris train station during the turn of the 20th century. At the train station, Hugo maintains the grand clock, attempts to fix an automaton he found, steals food, and tries to avoid the police who guard the place. As time passes, we learn how Hugo came to be in this predicament and he befriends a young girl who accompanies him on his adventures. Unbeknownst to him, her godfather is George Méliès, a French film-making pioneer and the creator of the automaton.

The author of this book, Brian Selznick, is a well established children's book author who has been publishing books since 1991 and who has won multiple honors in addition to the Caldecott, which are all listed here. He speaks in depth about this book and his work in general in this interview from Scholastic. In addition, Selznick has a wonderfully detailed website about the book, its making, and its film adaptation here.

Aside from garnering quite a bit of critical praise, this book was optioned by Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese who made it into a feature film. The film won Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects. A technical masterpiece to match the book, the movie cost a bundle to make and is well worth a viewing.

This has been almost universally exalted book. The tough critics at Kirkus Reviews gushed in a starred review that it was "elegantly designed" and "uniquely inventive." The New York Times' John Schwartz praised the book: its "story is full of twists and surprises, and it is especially touching for being based in part on the real-life troubles of Georges Méliès." The Guardian's kid reviewer called the book "brilliant" and added, "I think this book deserves five out of five stars."

A video preview is available here from the author. The book was published by Scholastic, who have a variety of resources at their site.

Why it is not quite a graphic novel: This book is beautifully illustrated, with each page acting as a panel that propels the story. The lack of words integrated in the story prevents me from saying it is a true graphic novel, especially when there are some extended text pieces that act as glue between the art chapters. It is the separation of the words from the art that lead to my decision about what to call this book, which is a supremely illustrated novel, if I have to categorize it. Not that this demarcation should detract from the book's beauty, warmth, and fantastic storyline. It reads simultaneously like a photo book, movie, and novel, which is no easy feat to achieve.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What It Is

We are getting metaphysical with today's entry on Not Quite A Graphic Novel Month.

A mediation on drawing, memory, art, thinking, and imagination as well as autobiographical scrapbook, What It Is is an evocative, intriguing, and thought-provoking work. In some ways it is difficult to describe: There are threads of ideas tying the book together, leitmotifs that resurface and offer a coherence. There are snippets of a life history. There are images that repeat in variations throughout the book, like ghosts of thoughts haunting the author as well as the reader. There are collages of old textbook and magazine images combined with handwritten letters, envelopes, and postmarks. There are so many emotions and feelings expressed throughout, from creative breakthroughs to isolation to epiphanies to alienation to small, significant moments where things suddenly make sense. It is a sad, beautiful, and hopeful book.

Author/artist Lynda Barry has been an active creator for decades now, and she is the eponymous "Funk Queen of the Galaxy" to whom Matt Groening dedicates every volume of his Life in Hell collections. She has published many books, including 100! Hundred! Demons! and Picture This, which is a companion piece to this volume. More recently she conducts writing workshops especially aimed at non-writers. Barry also shares videos, art, and news about her work on her official site, The Near-Sighted Monkey.

Some readers will find a familiarity in the autobiographical stories, as they resemble the ones in her long-running comic strip, Ernie Pook's Comeek. Barry speaks extensively about her life, work, and teaching in this interview with the Paris Review.

Reviews of this book have been very positive. Jeff VanderMeer praised it as "one of those rare books that offers solace for the soul and brilliant commentary on the artistic impulse." elisa ludwig called it "both a window into Barry’s mind and a brilliant representation of creativity at work." Michael Moon concluded that it is "an amazing achievement."

The book's publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, offers a preview here.

Why it is not quite a graphic novel: Although it does use sequential art sequences, What It Is also is a piece of art in and of itself. It is interspersed with aphorisms, collage images, and pages that can stand by themselves. As a whole, this book uses various media produces a great number of effects, inspirations, feelings, and thoughts. I am not quite sure what I would call this type of book, but I do know that reading it is an experience not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

He Done Her Wrong

Today on Not Quite a Graphic Novel Month is a blast from the past.

One of the precursors to today's graphic novels, He Done Her Wrong is an epic story, or, as subtitled, "The Great American Novel (with no words)." Published first in 1930, the book has a plot reminiscent of a silent movie, which was likely a reflection of the author's work with film star Charlie Chaplin.The story is a typical "boy meets girl, boy loses girl" tale, with lots of twists and turns. The story begins in a wilderness setting, with a hulking, heroic outdoors-man/lumberjack meeting and falling in love with a beautiful singer. They get together, but complications arise from corrupt business partners and the machinations of various villainous rich people. I do not want to spoil the ending, but after various changes of venue, fights, hijinks, ambulance rides, and finding a convenient birthmark, the story comes to a happy conclusion.

The book's creator Milt Gross was born in 1895 and started cartooning when he was just 12 years old. He produced a prodigious amount of work for the newspapers of the day, including The New York Journal and later The New York World. His strips were full of madcap escapades and immigrant humor and had titles like Banana Oil, Nize Baby, and Count Screwloose of Tooloose. He also published collections of these strips, and these volumes today are collectors' items. For those interested, there is additional biographical information about Gross on Lambiek and JVJ Publishing.

A book that has enjoyed a recent revival, He Done Her Wrong is considered a classic but also still a vital work in its own right. Lance Eaton wrote that "it could easily compete with some of today's graphic novel despite its simplistic plot." The reviewer at ComicList called the book "frenetic and wildly creative in its style." Paul Karasik wrote in appreciation of this book, "Gross uses whatever graphic device he needs to prove a point, get a giggle, or prod the plot. Nothing fancy. Nothing artsy. Just tell the story clearly, get the gag across, and go home. It's all in a day's work."

A short preview is available here from this edition's publisher, Fantagraphics.

Why it's not quite a graphic novel:  As wonderful, boisterous, and dramatic the art is, this book uses sequential art images without any dialogue or other words to propel the story. Graphic novels use a combination of words and images. I am picky, I know...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout

Not Quite a Graphic Novel Month shines on!

I am not going to lie. I was geared up to hate this book. I saw it first in an airport in the graphic novels section but did not preview it. Always on the lookout for science graphic novels, I ordered it sight unseen from Amazon. When I got it, I opened it up and immediately thought, "Oh man, it's a picture book. What a ripoff!" So I set it aside for a few months. Now reading it, I see why it was put in with the graphic novels even though it really is not one. This book defies easy categorization, but I can tell you it's beautiful, informative, moving, and wonderfully strange. It is like a pictorial Moby Dick, a collection of disparate items and styles that hang together to give different aspects to complex narrative.

Ostensibly, this book is about two things: the lives and love of Marie and Pierre Curie, which act as the narrative thread connecting the second topic, the history of radioactivity. The Curies discovered polonium and radium, pioneering study of the elements and radioactivity. For their efforts they won Nobel Prizes, but they also fell victim to health problems from being exposed to radiation over long periods of time. They were titans of the field, lending their name to an elementary unit and beginning study of a phenomenon that has transformed the world, leading to medical advances, renewable energy, terrible disasters, and the most destructive weapons on the face of the planet. This book touches on all of these areas, and more. Today, Marie Curie is sometimes unfairly regarded as a token female scientist, and Pierre as her husband/collaborator, but as this books shows, such slight regard is unfounded and insulting. This book reanimates their stories and celebrates their lives and achievements in appropriate fashion.

Lauren Redniss, this book's creator, is an author and artist who has been published regularly in The New York Times. She also is the author of the book Century Girl: 100 years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies. From 2008-2009 she was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers at the New York Public Library, and she became a New York Institute for the Humanities fellow in 2010. Redniss speaks extensively about her impetus for creating this book here.

Redniss's artwork is beautiful and haunting. Much of the artwork is cyanotype, a photographic printing process that produces a ghostly effect meant to echo the glow of radium or an x-ray. She also makes good use of collage to portray historic and informational text pieces. From the artwork, her account of the artistic process, and the copious footnotes in the end pages of the book, Radioactive is an obvious labor of love for her.

This book has garnered some impressive praise. It was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist. Dwight Garner raved that "the word 'luminous' is a critic’s cliché, to be avoided at all costs, but it fits Ms. Redniss’s book pretty snugly. This is a story with a hefty half-life." Dr. Mary Jo Nye called it "a book that truly is out of the ordinary, and it is well worth reading and contemplating." Marcia Bartusiak added, "Finishing the book, I went back to the beginning and read it again. Just as I did with my favorite picture books as a child." Kathy Ceceri called Radioactive "a rich and complex story of life, love, and science told through narrative and imagery. It is a powerful and beautiful book."

Some preview pages are available from the author here. The book's publisher HarperCollins provides numerous links here.

Why it's not quite a graphic novel: Radioactive is not a graphic novel, but it is not quite a picture book either. It is a collection of beautifully rendered art that tells a story by itself but not necessary in sequential order. There are also substantial text pieces that could stand alone. All together, this book provides a unique experience as a well researched piece of nonfiction, an affecting love story, and an evocative series of images.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010

Up first in Not-Quite-A-Graphic-Novel Month is Michael Kupperman's Mark Twain's Biography 1910-2010

Most people are under the impression that Mark Twain died in 1910, but according to this volume the report of his "death was an exaggeration." Reading this book, we learn that not only is Twain still alive (thanks to a wizard's spell) but he has been having adventures the last 100 years. He fought in the Great War. He died his hair black, moved to Italy, and spent a year yelling gibberish at people. He had dalliances with Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Eisenhower. He foiled an alien invasion. He starred in several movies, including one porn film. He teamed up with Albert Einstein. He went to the moon with NASA. He fought in World War II. He even influenced Charles Schultz in creating Peanuts. Schultz's first version of the comic strip was decidedly less friendly and was called Li'l Sh*ts, and thankfully Twain was able to intervene with some constructive criticism.

Of course all of this is pure hokum. Still, I very much enjoyed the book, and frequently laughed out loud at the wordplay and absurd situations Twain engaged in. I found the best way to enjoy the book was to read it intermittently, taking time to savor each individual escapade.

This book is the creation of Michael Kupperman, a cartoonist most famous for his surreal, hilarious series Tales Designed to Thrizzle. He is known for his strange and wonderful characters such as Snake 'n' Bacon and Pagus. Kupperman speaks about his life and career in this interview with Big Think. And he speaks specifically about creating this book in this interview with SF Weekly.

The reviews I have read of the book have been mostly positive. The Comic Journal's Rob Clough praised the book, stating that "whatever direction he moves in, there is a consistent level of dizzying joy to be found in Kupperman’s work, a kind of humor that features dark and occasionally satirical edges but is mostly just a barrage of inspired wordplay, deadpan humor, and deceptively simple images." NPR's Glen Weldon called this book "hugely imaginative, exultantly silly, gag-a-minute writing that manages to comment on the popular culture of the last century while willfully wallowing in it — Python with a wry dose of Pynchon." Grace Bello enjoyed the book but was more lukewarm about the stories within, writing that "they're meant to be digested occasionally" so to avoid fatigue readers should read the book in small chunks.

Various previews and a plethora of links are available here from the book's publisher, Fantagraphics. Some sample chapters from the book (sans illustrations) are available here from the author.

Why it's not quite a graphic novel: Although there are a few sequential art episodes in the book, most chapters consist of a text piece and accompanying illustration. I see this work more as an illustrated book that has a few comic strips thrown in.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Not-Quite-A-Graphic-Novel Month Begins!

Sometimes, defining something works when we show what it is not.

Yesterday I defined what a graphic novel is, and for the rest of the month (starting tomorrow) I will post about books that get lumped in with, but are not quite, graphic novels. Along with my review/summary, I will also tell why the work is not a graphic novel.

I hope you enjoy the not-quite-graphic-novels I'll be posting the next few weeks!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What is a Graphic Novel?

What is in a name? Some people, like James Bucky Carter, want to call these books sequential art narratives. They have also been called picture novels, graphica, novels, or simply comics (or comix). After a few instances of others publishing more complex comics narratives, including It Rhymes with Lust, He Done Her Wrong, and Gil Kane's Blackmark, Will Eisner eventually used the term "graphic novel" to shop his A Contract With God book to publishers. He felt that this term would lend more weight to the work, and eventually it was published. Even though his book did not contain one single narrative but a collection of short stories the moniker "graphic novel" stuck and became widely used in the field.

Although he intentionally does not use the term, Art Spiegelman famously commented that what most people call a graphic novel was "a long comic book that needed a bookmark" and that his intention with Maus was that it "would have the density I associate with novels." He does not like the term graphic novel because it smacks of a comic book parading "all dressed up in a tuxedo so it can be in public."

Substantial length is one definitive feature of graphic novels. But how else are they different than comic books?

Graphic novels use the same format as comic books, sequential art, but they are different in significant ways. First, graphic novels are typically a self-contained story by a single creator or creative team. The more singular vision allows for greater creative control and encourages narratives where characters can grow, change, and engage in life activities that do not require a return to a set norm. Comic books contain properties that are typically kept in a certain state to ensure commercial viability, so usually there is only an illusion of change but little disruption of the status quo. In other words, Spider-Man is not going to be changed so much that people will not recognize him or his stories. Alternatively, a narrative such as Watchmen has a beginning, middle, and end, and its plot twists are not utterly predictable.

Second, comic books, at least in the USA, have come to focus on a few certain genres, namely superhero stories, such as Batman, and teen comedy, like Archie. The term “graphic novels” seems to imply a specific genre, but they cover a wide range of texts and genres. Books such as Maus, Laika, and The Cartoon History of the Universe are not fiction at all but contain non-fiction accounts or memoirs. Other graphic novels are fiction and extend into the worlds of fantasy (Bone), mystery/crime (Sin City), coming-of-age tales (American Born Chinese), science fiction (Ghostopolis), and romance (Blankets). They offer a unique literary experience to readers of different tastes and ages.

For me the basic characteristics of original graphic novels (OGN) are these:

1. They use a combination of words and images.
2. They are self-contained works, or a volumes in a finite series.
3. They are created by a single person or a relatively small group of people.

There are also types of graphic novels, including:

Adaptations. These retell stories originally published in different formats, typically novels or short stories, in sequential art form. Some examples are A Study in Scarlet, The Odyssey, or The Metamorphosis.

Anthologies/Collections. These collect disparate material sometimes by different artists in one volume. Some examples of these include James Sturm's America, Everybody is Stupid Except for Me, and the proposed The Graphic Textbook.

Manga. Manga are comics that come from Japan. They may read from right to left, although some books are "flipped" for western audiences. These range greatly in genre and audience. Some manga titles are Deathnote, Cromartie High School, Monster, and Lone Wolf and Cub.

Trade paperbacks. These collect a series of comic books that were originally published serially but include a finite story and are typically done by a common creator/creative team. Books like I Kill Giants, The Boys, or The Dark Knight Returns fall into this category.

This is my shot at defining what graphic novels are, but I know that the term is contentious to some and perhaps ill or incompletely defined by me.

What do you think?