Thursday, January 30, 2014

Understanding Photosynthesis with Max Axiom

Part of Capstone Press's Graphic Library imprint, Understanding Photosynthesis is one of the series of Max Axiom books. Axiom is a "super-scientist" who has amazing powers to shrink down and explore things on the atomic level as well as travel anywhere through time and space. He hosts all of the 24 books in the Graphic Science series aimed at 3rd and 4th grade level readers.These books cover a lot of ground in terms of scientific disciplines.
In this book, Axiom explores photosynthesis from the surface level, talking about how plants make food, and then moving into more complex areas. He explains plant parts, how plants get the materials necessary for photosynthesis, plant cell processes, and he even discusses elementary chemistry concerning how water and glucose molecules behave. I was impressed by how readable, accurate, and detailed this book was concerning its science information (and even double checked facts with my colleague Barry Golden).
The book is not really strong on plot, but the explanations and images combine very effectively to educate and inform. The narrative shifts in the end to a discussion of the water cycle and moves into a simplistic environmental message, but otherwise I found it informative in the best kind of visual ways.

This book was put together by a cadre of work-for-hire creators. Author Liam O'Donnell is an elementary school teacher and author of a number of books, including several informational graphic novels and the YA mystery series Geeked Out. The art is by Richard Dominguez and Charles Barnett IIIRichard Dominguez is best known for his creation El Gato Negro. Barnett III is a veteran comics inker who has lots of credits at the major comics companies.

This book has won a few awards, including Learning Magazine's Teachers' Choice Award for Children's Books and being named a Pennsylvania School Librarians Association's Young Adult Top Forty Nonfiction Title. In terms of informational text, I felt it had much to offer elementary readers, and it might also be a good resource for teachers of older students looking for supplemental visuals or a simpler explanatory text for instructional purposes.

A preview, reviews, and much more are available here from the publisher.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Manga Math Mysteries #3: The Secret Ghost

The Secret Ghost is the third in a series of eight books from the Graphic Universe press of Lerner Publishing. These books are aimed at teaching elementary students mathematics concepts via comic stories. I think the series title is catchy with its alliteration, but the comics nerd in me wants to quibble about these books being called manga because they aren't from Japan, don't read right to left, and they are not the typical size of manga. Still, I think the book is pretty good for what it is, basically a short comics textbook.

The main story, about a boy and his sister figuring out the source of a strange noise coming from behind a wall is pretty negligible, and the way that they get to the solution by measuring walls and doing some basic perimeter calculations is more didactic than entertaining. In the space of the narrative a short folktale is used as a teachable moment in the middle of the book, and the main problem is forecasted early on in a task from karate class. 

Despite the shortcomings of the plot, there are features about the art and characters I like. The cast is  multicultural and diverse without either characteristic being distracting, and the best part of the book for me was the matter of fact way the characters interact, gently tease each other, and go about their days. They might look cute and somewhat generic, but they are pretty likable and relatable, too.

A lot of the appeal has to do with the character designs and Yuko Ota's art. She has drawn comics for a variety of companies and websites and is best known for her work on the webcomic Johnny Wander. The story was written by Melinda Thielbar, a co-founder and organizer of Research Triangle Analyst, mathematics educator, and author of the other books in the MMM series.

This book has been generally praised, though the reviews I have read admit it has its limitations. The Graphic Classroom's Chris Wilson wrote about this book and series, "I would never attempt to con kids into using these titles to promote a love of reading, unless the child is a serious math enthusiast," but he went on to say that they would most likely be engaging teaching demonstration materials. Johanna Draper Carlson liked this volume most out of the series she read, stating "Not only is this educational without talking down to kids, it’s pretty entertaining."

There are a preview, links to standards, and more here from the publisher.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Dim Sum Warriors Volume 2: Feast of Fury

After the competition that closed volume 1, Prince Roastpork Bao (a.k.a. "Porky") finds himself a disciple of the Fried Kung Academy, but he soon disappears, throwing the land into confusion and setting off a series of events that lead to upheaval, revolution, and conflict.

Sides are taken, and the four factions of the Dim Sum Warriors jockey for position. There are some surprises, as you see above, such as that old Chicken Foot actually has some amazing powers and abilities and works to protect the royal family and young children who are striving for justice and freedom.
Colonel Quickynoodle is still up to his old tricks, and his plans here come to realization. He is a stock villain in many ways, but I love how his characterization melds old-school kung fu conventions with more modern concerns such as commercialization, nutrition, and media awareness. Plus, his hair is just awesome. This book is fun, action-packed, as well as simultaneously thought provoking and silly, a difficult combination to achieve.
One of my favorite parts of these books is how food items are characterized and how their personalities emerge. These stories are full of heart, reverence of old ways, and an appreciation of our contemporary world. It is great for children, treating them respectfully by engaging their interests and current concerns while still providing doses of humor, action, intrigue, and invention. Add to all these positive features of the narrative that this book is the physical manifestation of an educational app that helps emerging readers learn in either English or Mandarin Chinese, and I think the result is an excellent teaching and learning resource as well as a fun, engaging story.

The story for Dim Sum Warriors was written by Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo, a married couple who have developed multiple websites and films. They speak about their work and backgrounds here at their official website. The artwork is expressive, fluid, fun, and crisply presented by Soo Lee. This volume is also pretty interesting in its back pages where we see the earlier efforts of these creators to use these characters in a syndicated comic strip and a comic book anthology. Looking at them, a budding creator can gain some insight into the creative process of making comics.

Feast of Fury has received deserved positive attention and was named a Featured Title on Diamond Bookshelf. Here is a list of review excerpts posted on the book's official site.

This book was published by Yumcha Studios. Here is an online tutorial for using the app version, which is also a quick preview of the story from Volume 1.

Thank you, Yen Yen, for making a great new product and keeping me up to date with your delightful work!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel

A Wrinkle in Time is a classic novel by Madeleine L'Engle, a Newbery Award winner and bestseller for more than 50 years. It is the first in a series of five books about the O'Keefe and Murry families, and it covers a lot of territory including quantum physics, time travel, centaurs, family drama, growing up, and the struggle between good and evil. This book uses the original dialogue and chapter breakdowns of the novel but adds much in terms of striking visuals and fantastic visual storytelling. Making this novel into a graphic novel could have detracted from the original evocative language, removing some of the imaginative work involved in visualizing the characters, situations, and fantastic elements, but this book strikes a great balance between showing and telling. It is an adaptation, but it is also a translation and an homage that leaves lot of room for interpretations from the reader.
As you can see form the excerpts above, the art is expertly rendered, well-balanced and -paced, and powerfully atmospheric. There is a limited color palette, but the black, white, and blue are used to excellent effect. This fine storytelling was done by Hope Larson, past winner of the Eisner, Ignatz, and Doug Wright Awards for her talents. She has created multiple comics and graphic novels including Chiggers and Mercury. Larson speaks about her work on this adaptation in this interview, and this one also has commentary from the book's editor as well.

This adaptation is a best seller, and also won accolades including the 2013 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Teens. Reviews I have read have been mostly positive. Publishers Weekly wrote, "While fans may miss L’Engle’s detailed and evocative prose, her original dialogue, combined with Larson’s deft interpretation, will remind them of their first reading, while simultaneously bringing a seminal classic to a new generation." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Larson’s admiration and respect for the original text shines through; this is an adaptation done right." Seth T. Hahne offered a contrary opinion, expressing his overall disappointment with the book.

A preview and much more are available here from the book's publisher Margaret Ferguson Books.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Aphrodite: Goddess of Love

I have been enamored with George O'Connor's Olympians series from the get-go, admiring his translation of Greek myths into more modern sensibilities and superheroic iconography. This sixth book in the series focuses on Aphrodite, and what I admire most about it is how O'Connor tackled the problematic original source material. He focuses more on what makes her formidable and powerful and only obliquely refers to her many ribald, scandalous stories. Her origins are different than those of the other Olympians, as she is almost a force of nature than a member of the Pantheon. And her origins are somewhat ambiguous.
In terms of the artwork, I admired how there are lots of classical references, such as the above sequence that called to mind Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, without being derivative or too literal. There is still a superhero comics flavor to the proceedings, but this volume is less bombastic and leans more on atmosphere and tone to tell the stories.
Perhaps that shift was necessary as Aphrodite's tales tend to be less about the typical male hero of Greek myths and more about choices, transformation, and relationships. Still, I think O'Connor packs a lot of emotion, humor, and personality into tales of the birth of Aphrodite, the Judgment of Paris, Eros's antics, and Pygmalion. This book might not feature the cinematic action of past volumes, but it does build on the stories and characters from those books. And I am impressed by how all of this continuity is being thread through volumes. I think it would be rewarding to young readers who read and revisit the series.

New York Times bestselling artist/writer George O'Connor has created a number of graphic novels in addition to these well received Olympians books about Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. His first was the American history journal account Journey into Mohawk Country and his second was the dystopian future book Ball Peen Hammer, written by Adam Rapp. He also has published a number of children's picture books.

I felt that this might not be my favorite book in the series, but it is still well done and intriguing, a sentiment I saw reflected in other reviews. Jeff Provine wrote, "While not O’Connor’s strongest, Aphrodite serves as a great midpoint for the series," adding that it looks back at the origins depicted in the first book and also ahead to the future volumes that will feature the Trojan War. Amanda from Novel Addiction commented, "I'm glad the author chose to give us stories that show Aphrodite as a strong female lead instead of a lusty lady." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "This neatly nuanced take on Aphrodite shows respect for the ultrafeminine heroine."

Aphrodite: Goddess of Love was published by First Second, and they have copious resources available here.

Thank you for the review copy, Gina!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

March, Book One

March, Book One is the first of a trilogy chronicling the life and times of John Lewis, a US Congressman, civil rights activist, and the last remaining speaker from the March on Washington, the occasion for MLK's historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

The book shifts from the past to the present, framed by Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration, but delving into the past and showing scenes from Lewis's childhood growing up as a sharecropper in Alabama, his calling to become a preacher, his going to college and meeting other civil rights activists, and his roles in various sit-ins and marches. These stories are not sugar coated and have strong elements of the dangers and realities of these historical situations.
Simultaneously, the story and art also practice nonviolence and move toward understanding and acceptance. Even when depicting horrible events, the story and art refuses to demonize those who practice prejudice and violence, even while showing that those practices are morally and ethically wrong. The journalistic tenor of the book captures a palpable sense of struggle, conviction, and consequence.

Lewis and his staffer Andrew Aydin make their debuts as graphic novel writers with this book, but artist Nate Powell is 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. He has much to work with, both in terms of history and experiences, and as demonstrated in the excerpts above he makes excellent tonal use of black and white to tell riveting, moving, and powerful tales. All these creators speak about the origins and their role in making this book in this NPR profile.

A best-seller and listed among the best books of 2013 by many, including USA Today, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The Horn Book, Paste, Slate, ComicsAlliance, Amazon, and Apple iBooks, this book has been much acclaimed. Michael Cavna called it "riveting and beautiful." Cornelius Fortune praised the artwork especially for conveying meaning and feeling, stating that "Powell’s style is somewhere in between the worlds of photorealism and animation, the images at times seeming to move on the page." Esther Keller summed up, "This book would be a wonderful addition to any library, private, public, or school. It would especially enhance any curriculum unit on the Civil Rights Movement."

March, Book One is available from Top Shelf, and they provide a preview, reviews, links, and much more here.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My Favorite Graphic Novels of 2013

As you may guess, I read a lot of graphic novels over the course of a year, although they are not all winners and I do not review all of them on this blog. What follows is my list of the books I enjoyed most this past year.

This is probably the best book I read in the last year, and in the top two at the very least. There is so much detail, artifice, and craft put into this book it is amazing. It is about a secret government agency that finds and exploits people with powerful mental abilities and what happens when it finds that it cannot possibly control them. I have read it multiple times and been struck by nuances of the deceptively simple-looking art, the gripping, airtight plot, and the best kind of cloak and dagger stories. This book is incredible, inventive, fresh, and exciting, and it's the first part of a series that I cannot help but to follow.

Boxers & Saints
Even though they are two books, I am putting them together because I cannot imagine thinking about one without the other. I expect them to be high on many people's lists this year - they're up for the National Book Award, for Pete's sake! What I admire perhaps most is how they are ostensibly about historical events but still speak to contemporary times and issues so clearly. They are about loyalty, belief, war, and trying to make sense of battling people who seem alien to each other, all major issues when we look at current world and national events. These insights are intensified when we get the accounts from viewpoints on two sides of the conflict, adding much gravitas to how things turn out. These books linger with me still.

Part memoir, part cook book, Lucy Knisley's book is a brilliant, vibrant, enjoyable, and unique reading experience. I connected with her childhood experiences and her coming-of-age tales set in upstate NY, laughed at her missteps and teachable moments, and am still wanting to try her carbonara recipe. To be cliché: delightfully delicious and will leave you craving more!

Marble Season
Maybe because it's set in a time when I was a kid and I can relate, but I felt that Gilbert Hernandez's first overtly autobiographical book was a beautiful, truthful, and resonant look at childhood. In its pages, the children play and fight; they learn about life and death; they imagine different worlds and fumble around about love. Its colorful characters, well defined relationships, taut pacing, and situations that can make you laugh and cry are all examples of why he might be the greatest comics creator working today.

You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack
I am bending the rules a little here, because this is not really a graphic novel but a collection of one page comics. But Gauld's humor, wit, insight, and literary references just make me so plain happy, and his elegant yet charged drawings resemble beautiful woodcuts. This book made me laugh out loud several times, and it holds up after multiple rereadings, which is grounds enough for me for its inclusion here.

As per usual, Jim Ottaviani provides a compelling and informative story here, telling about long-ranging research studies on chimps, gorillas, and orangutangs as well as the people who did them, but if truth be told I am also including this book here because Maris Wick knocked the ball out of the park with her illustration. A book that uses the graphic novel format to full effect and also provides an approachable, intriguing, and scholarly narrative, Primates is a great introduction into the worlds of science and primatology.

Heck is a man whom people pay to go to Hell and communicate with the lost souls there. Part noir and part Dante's Inferno, this story about a pair of adventurers looking to make a buck off an entrance to the underworld is full of humanity, friendship, suspense, and metaphysical musing. I loved the cliffhanger chapter endings and found myself compelled, surprised, and quizzical about what I was reading. One of this year's unheralded great graphic novels.

Crater XV
This sequel to Far Arden is every bit as exciting, hilarious, and heart-breaking. It follows a sea-faring adventurer on a quest to find his lost love, deter a Russian rocket launch, and possibly go to the Moon. The art is as inventive, fun, expressive, and even more polished than in that first volume. This book is a testament to the potential of sequential art, and if I could, I would make sure Kevin Cannon was an extremely rich man because I required the entire world to buy his books.

Battling Boy
This may have been the most energetic, fresh, and fun graphic novel on this list. Battling Boy is a young god/superhero with an array of t-shirts that endow him with specific powers and abilities. He is stuck on a world beset with monsters and crooked politicians, and while he can punch the former to solve some of his problems he has to learn to deal with the latter as well. This book really captured the feeling of what superhero comics used to feel like for me as a youngster.

The Legend of Ricky Thunder 
If you like professional wrestling, hilarious jokes, and battles with aliens bent on conquering the Earth, then this is the book for you. Ricky Thunder is a world champion wrestler who finds himself in a high-stakes match, with the fate of the Earth in the balance. If he wins, the Earth is saved. If he loses, then we are all done for. Full of frenetic action and fights as well as laugh-out-loud gags and situations, this book is charming and so entertaining, an absolute winner. Not really available from most (any?) bookstores, it is available directly from the author here.

Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume 1 
I love old-school rap songs and artists, the art in Bronze age superhero comics, and Ed Piskor's nonfiction work, and this book combines all three. The history of rap music, from the streets of the Bronx to the earliest recordings to the first few commercial hits, is chronicled here. Educational and entertaining in the best ways, this book collects webcomics that you can read for free but is such a wonderfully composed physical object you should run out and buy it now.

Powerful, spare, and addictive. This incredibly readable and provocative tale of runaway teenagers and the mayhem they create and endure took me by surprise and affected me in unexpected ways. It's not for children, and it is disturbing, but it is also one of the strongest, most visceral, and emotional comics-reading experiences I have had in a long time.

And finally, I cannot help but to include one more book that would have been on my "best of" list last year if I had read it in time:

This book does that rarest of things for me: it lives up to the hype. It is the graphic novel you should give to people who don't know they like graphic novels. A mish-mash of science fiction and fantasy with a dash of Romeo and Juliet, the story here is exhilarating, surprising, inventive, and breath-taking with its twists and turns. Given that I am an old man who can still recall such a thing, I'd say the feeling I got reading this book was a lot like the sense of wonder Star Wars invoked in me as a young'un. Saga is excellent.

That's it. There's my list. Happy New Year!