Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me

Ellen Forney has been drawing comics for decades now, with autobiographical works such as Monkey Food, a more adult, nostalgic collection titled I Love Led Zeppelin, and a collaboration with author Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award-winning YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. She has also been a frequent contributor to "Seattle's Only Newspaper," The Stranger. She is a successful, productive artist, and for many years she has dealt with being bi-polar. This book is her personal account of dealing with that condition.

Marbles is funny, dark, troubling, hopeful, informative, and wonderful. Its narrative is powerfully presented in a multifaceted manner. It captures her hopes to be a productive artist and fears that if she seeks treatment she will become less inspired and less capable artistically. She fears that it will also leave her joyless and empty, so in very concrete ways this book explores the stereotype that artists have to be troubled, manic, and crazy people. The story also chronicles her relationships with her family, lovers, friends, and colleagues in intimate and complex ways. There are no easy answers in deciding about medications, treatments, or personal interactions.

Essential in this presentation is Forney's artwork, which combines sequential art and infographics in effective manner. She plays with layouts and format frequently, keeping her work fresh and the readers on  their toes. This book is super-informative but never boringly so and also very personal, with the emotion coming from her pacing and extremely expressive art. Forney captures her manic highs and depressive lows in like manner, and seeing insights from the life of a vital artist whose work I have been following for some while now impressed me greatly.

This graphic novel was included in many best of lists last year, and it has been very well reviewed in some high profile venues. The Los Angeles Times' David Ulin wrote that this book is "more than a survivor's story" and that "The best stuff here collapses the distance between reader and artist, either by stripping away distinguishing details or by opening the story to broader concerns." Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Maerz gave it an A and called it "proof that artists don't have to be tortured to be brilliant." The New York Times' Douglas Wolk was more measured, offering that it is "not exactly focused, but it’s mostly delightful."

Marbles is published by Penguin Books. There is a preview available at Amazon.

The book also has an official page with much information, reviews, and links to mental health resources.

I would recommend this book for more mature readers as it contains some explicit language, nudity, and drug use.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953

The best kind of educational books both engage and inform their readers, and I am happy to report that Best of Enemies is that kind of graphic novel. There was much in it that surprised me, including the fact that the Ottoman Empire was the first foreign entity the nascent US declared war against as well as the extremely sketchy roles FDR and Dwight Eisenhower had in post-colonial Iran and installing the shah into power. The book levels blame in many directions, and no one really emerges as a hero, not even the US. The narrative is complex and compelling, well detailed and documented by a prominent and respected scholar, Jean-Pierre Filiu. Certainly there is much here that is eye-opening and also shows that the conflicts we are still witness to are complicated and long-lived, going back centuries before oil was even a factor.

For me the highlight of this book was David B.'s art, which is bold, iconographic, and searingly beautiful. I found myself lingering over the physicality of his patterns and the etherealism of his imagery that simultaneously propel the story while commenting on it like the best kinds of editorial cartoons. His political views resonate through the narrative clearly, offering insights that take full advantage of the uniqueness of the sequential art medium. Also, a thread of icons that date back to the Sumerian king Gilgamesh is woven throughout, lending a legendary and historic quality while also tying events together thematically. After reading Best of Enemies, the current conflicts in the Middle East seem less like recent concoctions than long-building events predicated on a series of scuffles, backroom deals, and cash-grabs.

Both of this book's creators are distinguished in what they do. David B. is a respected, award-winning comics artist whose autobiographical graphic novel Epileptic is considered a modern classic. He has influenced many other artists as a founding member of the prominent French publishing house, L'Association, which is where Marjane Satrapi and Joann Sfar were first published. Dr. Filiu has been a political consultant in high-level capacities over the past three decades and is professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs. He has also worked internationally at other prestigious schools like Georgetown and Columbia University.

Reviews I have read online have been very positive about this book. Bart Croonenborghs highly recommended it, writing "Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B. complement each other perfectly in crafting not only an important historical document but also a reflection on current times." Tucker Stone, who is not one to gush, gushed, "I'd recommend this book unreservedly to someone who wants to drink in some exciting art, I'd donate a thousand copies to school libraries throughout the world." Henry Chamberlain felt the book was very even-handed, stating "The approach of the book is refreshing in how the U.S. is placed among all the other players of geopolitics. There is no shining beacon on a hill, per se, and that goes for everyone."

This book is the first of a projected trilogy. It was published by Self Made Hero, and there is a preview at Amazon.com.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Jerusalem: A Family Portrait

Jerusalem is an impressive graphic novel both in size and scope. It is set from 1940 to 1948, a time when the Jewish nation of Israel was being constituted. The main plot follows the Halaby family. Two brothers, Isak and Yakov have a long standing conflict of Biblical proportions and there is also financial drama between them. This conflict between Isak, a candy peddler, and his affluent brother devolves into debts, slights, and legal actions. This strife also affects their spouses and children, all of whom are trying to coexist in some manner.

Layered into that family drama are the political happenings of the day, and this book is as much about political machinations as it is familial ones. Complicating matters further, some family members are part of the anti-British and French occupation movements. We are privy to some of the children, especially Isak's defiantly outspoken son Motti, pushing back against the indoctrination happening in the schools. The older children are embroiled in various military forces and actions, and they are often divided along political lines. These conflicts are depicted in human and affecting ways, but the story is also chock full of historical information, and I felt that I was enlightened much more about the origins of Israel of a country.

Also, it is worth mentioning that this story does not shy away from the brutality and horrors of war, and is stunningly graphic concerning destruction and death. The art is not over the top regarding these depictions, and I think that the violence of war juxtaposed well with the emotional violence that occurred between a number of the characters. Prisoners are not taken on many fronts in this book.

This book was a collaboration between writer Boaz Yakin, a screen writer who has also written the graphic novel Marathon, and Nick Bertozzi, a prolific graphic novelist interested in historical work. Among his works are the Harvey and Ignatz Award winning series Rubber Necker as well as the graphic novels The Salon, Lewis and Clark, and Houdini: The Handcuff King.  I felt that his moody, atmospheric grays and brand of cartoon realism made for some very effective and evocative scenes. His art style perfectly balances the emotional and factual needs of the narrative. For those interested more in the narrative, this interview with Yakin casts more light on Jerusalem's inception and creation.

In regard to its critical reception, Booklist gave this book a starred review, but most reviews I have seen appear more measured. Hillary Brown opined that it was "reasonably compelling with its dynamic politics and wide scope, even if it tries to pack too much in." Henry Chamberlain praised that it "provides a rich and dense texture to a narrative that invites a thorough reading." April called it "immensely readable," even if she was not a big fan of the artwork. I admit that this book does have a lot packed into it, but I felt in the end that that memorable characters, dramatic situations, and ambiguous, impactful conclusion made this a powerful work.

A preview, reviews, and more are available here from the book's publisher First Second.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Far Arden

Army Shanks sounds like a tough customer, and that name is true to form with the main character of Far Arden. A version of Popeye by way of Canada, he is a sailor, student of history, and explorer who is obsessed with finding the mythical land of Far Arden. This uncharted island lies near the North Pole but is somehow lush and tropical. During his quest he runs afoul of government agents, double-crossers from his past who want his map, a circus owner and a giant man who wrestles bears, a pack of angry orphans, a couple of college students, an ex-girlfriend, and a boy who dresses like a wolf and wants to avenge his father. Many of these folks appear to be one-off characters but are strikingly well developed.

To say this is a fantastical journey is an understatement. There is romance, melancholy, regret, fisticuffs, and intrigue aplenty here, and the story takes many twists and turns which are enhanced by the playful, cartoony art and clever sound effects. I was charmed so many ways by a plot masterfully spun in a complex but not convoluted manner. However the ending is sharply bittersweet, and I am glad to know there is a sequel Crater XV, which is currently appearing serially in the superb digital comic anthology Double Barrel, even if not all the characters make it.

This comic's creator Kevin Cannon has a growing number of impressive works under his belt, including the collaborations with Zander Cannon (no relation), Evolution, The Stuff of Life, T-Minus, and  Bone-Sharps, Cowboys, & Thunder Lizards. His art and storytelling are exemplars of economy, wit, and energy. He speaks more about his career and this book in this excellent interview with Tom Spurgeon from 2009.

Far Arden was nominated for an Eisner Award for "Best Publication for Teens." Other reviews I have read about it concur with this praise and comment on the mix of humor, artistry, and adventure. Matt Peckham gushed, "Far Arden is like breathing that atmosphere laced with caffeine and laughing gas, a romping shaggy-dog story with a not-so-shaggy twist ending, the best practically pocket-sized adventure fiction I’ve read in years." J. Caleb Mozzocco called it "definitely one of the funniest—and most fun—books I’ve read this year." I agree wholeheartedly with Theodore Anderson, who wrote, "His art is a joy to read: characters leap across the page with noodle-limbed physiques, but he can wring surprising emotional depth from their exaggerated features when he chooses." Jen Vaughan wrote, "Far Arden is one of those books you plow through in an excited and ecstatic manner only to slow down towards the end in order to savor every page turn," which is a feeling I can easily relate to in my own reading.

The entire book is available online here, but this is a fun book well worth owning. The hard copy is published by Top Shelf.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye

Chances are you have at least heard of the hit show adaptation of this series on AMC. It originally started as a comic book in October, 2003 and has been coming out regularly since. Currently the series is up to 109 issues, and this trade paperback collects the first six issues.

The story here is about Rick Grimes, a policeman who wakes up after being in a coma to find that the world has been overtaken by zombies. After he gets his bearings, he goes home to find the place abandoned. Fearing the worst for his wife and son, he fights back fear and despair to travel to Atlanta, the nearest big city where they may have gone to get help. When he gets there, he meets a number of human survivors, some of whom he knows. I don't want to spoil much, but Rick learns that maybe he has as much to fear about people's intentions as he does from the mindless bloodlust of the dead folk.

This series was written by Robert Kirkman, one of the partners in Image Comics. He has written a number of series, from the irreverent and blasphemous Battle Pope to the teenage superhero yarn Invincible to the silly and gory Marvel Zombies to the entertainingly crazy Super-Dinosaur. It was drawn by Tony Moore, an artist known for his work on horror series like The Exterminators and Fear Agent. Both creators have been nominated for Eisner Awards, and their creation The Walking Dead won the 2010 Best Series Eisner. Additionally, these two creators had a spat over the rights from this zombie series but apparently have settled their differences.

As might be expected from all its fame and popularity, this volume has received many positive (if spoiler-filled) reviews. Alex Giles recommends it for a variety of readers, stating, "Even if you are not a comic book fan and have never read one before I would still say pick this up and give it a read as I could see a lot of non comic book fans loving this too." Dean Stell called it "A very strong first volume.  Read it and you’ll be hooked." There is also an interesting discussion of the comic books contained in this volume from The Onion A.V. Club. I think this series is addictive and compelling, with lots of drama, intrigue, and horror done masterfully.

This book was published by Image Comics. A preview is available at Amazon.com.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Marjane Satrapi speaks out about Chicago Public School ban of Persepolis

Here is an informative article and multiple links about the story from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

I have not been following the story quite as closely as I should be, because it is a crunch grading time for me, but I think it bears repeating that the only two places to ban this book are the US and Iran. Strange bedfellows, no?

If you should not know who Marjane Satrapi is or are unfamiliar with Persepolis, one of the more respected graphic novels and frequently taught in American public schools, check out these links to my reviews of books 1 and 2.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

As a fan of shows like Chopped, Top Chef, and No Reservations, this was a graphic novel right up my alley. Lucy Knisley's account of growing up with a mother who is a catering chef and a father who is a foodie is an excellent concoction of memory, food, humor, and reflection. She illustrated vignettes from her various points in life, including participating in an upstate New York farmers market, a trip to Italy with her father, experiments with cooking on a budget in art school, and the trials and tribulations of entering puberty while on vacation in Mexico.

All along the way, her memories are mingled with the smells and tastes of food, the joys of which she communicates well, even though we cannot experience them directly ourselves. From crunching on tomatillos, to savoring particular jam-filled croissants, even enjoying guilty, non-gourmet (gasp!) treats like McDonald's french fries, she takes the reader on a journey that is simultaneously familiar, informative, and adventurous. In what is perhaps the best touch, she also provides recipes in each chapter for such diverse foods as carbonara, chocolate chip cookies, pesto, sangria, huevos rancheros, and sushi rolls.

The art in this book is vibrant, lively, and intelligent. Artist/writer Lucy Knisley is a Renaissance woman who sings and draws. Relish is her second graphic novel, the first being French Milk, a travelogue about a six-week trip to Paris. She speaks more about her life and works in this interview. She also occasionally blogs here.

Because of the atypical (for a graphic novel) subject matter, I have seen reviews for this book from some diverse sources. They have been resoundingly positive. Renee Shelton wrote about it, "This book makes for a quick read as her stories are hard to put down once you start and the comic book style illustrations make it easy to digest." Seth T. Hahne stated that the book fulfilled two goals for him: "1. Make Lucy Knisley seem like an awesome person with an infectious love for food." and "2. Infect the reader with that love for food." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded, "this is a book that teenagers and parents will savor in equal measure." For me, reading this book was a joyful experience, like a breath of fresh air coming from a bakery.

A preview and more are available here from the book's publisher First Second.

A big thank you to Gina for the review copy!