Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Graphic Canon, Volume 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest

Representing huge swaths of literature in visual manners is a huge undertaking, as is trying to review all the intricacies of such a volume. Because it's that time of the year for me, I do not know if my brain or energy level is up for the task of describing these myriad adaptations, but suffice it to say that as a whole this book is impressive, thought-provoking, striking, daring in parts, and excellent for fostering discussions about representation and analysis. Russ Kick's third volume of the Graphic Canon contains a huge range of styles and interpretations of literature beginning from the late 19th century and extending to the end of the 20th, and it touches on more works from outside of the traditional European canon than the second volume did.

My favorite things in this book are the scattered "Three Panel Review" comics by Lisa Brown. They just tickled my funny bone with the way they simultaneously commented on and distilled books into comic strips.

A good number of the entries are more visual interpretations that do not have much textual accompaniment, such as

Graham Rawle's photo-diaramas of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Laura Plansker's photo-diaramas of Animal Farm
T. Edward Bak's spare adaptation of The Maltese Falcon

PMurphy's impressionistic panels from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Onsmith's frenetic panels interpreting J.G. Ballard's Crash
Other entries melded illustrations with the original text, such as Anthony Ventura's interpretation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Other entries used more sequential art styles and conventions to both adapt and interpret literary works.

Sonia Leong's appropriately manga-flavored version of Reginald
David Lasky re-imagining James Joyce's Ulysses as mini-comics
Peter Kuper adapting more Kafka tales in paranoid, impressionistic ways
Trevor Alixopulos capturing the wild, deranged sides of Lord of the Flies
Jason Cobley coordinating a contextualized "Dulce et Decorum Est"
C. Frakes 1-page chapter summaries of The Age of Innocence
There is even a smattering of nonfiction pieces, such as Steve Rolston's adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway newspaper article "Living on $1000 a Year in Paris."

One of the aspects I appreciate most about this book is its selection of artists. I was unfamiliar with many until seeing them here for the first time, and I am glad to have been introduced to their work. As you can see from the images above, there is so much to peruse, mull over, and digest in these images. This book is chock full of literary and aesthetic goodness.

I have not been able to find many reviews about this volume in particular, but the entire project has generated much praise and good will. Henry Chamberlain called Volume 3 "such a mighty undertaking that you just can’t go wrong." The folks at Publishers Weekly named it one of the summer's best books and called it "the most beautiful book of 2013."

The Graphic Canon, Volume 3 was published by Seven Stories Press. Excerpts, information, reviews, and more can be found at the book's official site.

Thank you so much to Jesse for the review copy!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sweet Tooth, Volume 1: Out of the Deep Woods

I very much enjoy the work of Jeff Lemire in general. I think that his spare and brutal Essex County Trilogy was inspired and brilliant. His superhero work on titles like Animal Man was well crafted, and his original works like The Underwater Welder and Trillium are incredibly well plotted and characterized. He is a multiple award winner, and I very much enjoy his atmospheric and deceptively simple-looking art.

Out of the Deep Woods collects the first 5 issues of Sweet Tooth, Lemire's 40-issue series of comic books set in a post-apocalyptic USA where a nuclear plague is wiping out humanity while also spawning hybrid creatures that combine features of humans and animals. One of these hybrids is Gus, who lives in an isolated cabin in the woods with his father, the only family (human being actually) he has ever known. Gus is 9 years old, full of his dad's religious teachings, and widely ignorant of the ways of the world. He also has some survival training, which comes in handy after his father dies. Of course, he eventually runs afoul of some humans.
Original scan from iFanboy. Also, as you can see here this book has some mature language and violence, so I recommend parental guidance.
He ends up tagging along with a strong, silent type named Jepperd, who seems to be offering protection but may also have ulterior motives of his own. I won't go on further to spare spoilers, but let me just say that this story gets addictive pretty quickly. This first volume excellently sets up the premise and characters and also sets a suspenseful and compelling narrative in motion. I know that this genre is very popular and almost omnipresent right now, but this book is exceptionally done and well worth exploring. Lemire speaks extensively about his work on Sweet Tooth all the way until the series' conclusion (so there are spoilers) in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read for this series have been full of praise. iFanboy's Paul Montgomery gave this volume 5 stars and added, "I'd be really happy to see a book like this go on for however long Lemire wants it to proceed." Joey Esposito called it "a great hook into this new series." Ian Aleksander Adams called it "amazingly irresistible. It’s executed very very well and makes for an enjoyable read."

Out of the Deep Woods is now titled Out of the Woods, apparently, and was published by Vertigo. For more information, you can visit the book's official blog, though it has not been updated in a long while.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Adventures of Superhero Girl

Faith Erin Hicks has been knocking the ball out of the graphic novel park for a while now. I very much enjoyed her books Friends with Boys and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. She is a graphic novelist, webcomics creator, and animator whose growing list of impressive works also includes The War at Ellsmere and Brain Camp. Today I am looking at a compilation of her webcomic, The Adventures of Superhero Girl.

This series began as a strip in Halifax's free weekly newspaper, The Coast, and was also published online. It follows the exploits of a superheroine who is trying to make it in the big city. She has a roommate, short job prospects, and a good, occasionally strained relationship with her mom and golden child older brother.
She does her requisite superheroic duties, which include fighting aliens and ninjas, and of course she also rescues cats from trees.
Aside from creating art packed with personality and verve, Hicks does an excellent job playing with superhero conventions and mixing them with more mundane matters. I think she is awesome at delivering laughs as well as evocative scenes and characters.
The most obvious shift in the compilation from the webcomic is the introduction of color by Cris Peter. He is well versed in coloring comics for all manners of companies, and I enjoy how he makes these strips look slightly pixelated, like print comics did before the 1990s.
I like these comics in either black and white or color, but I thought I'd include an original just for contrast.

The reviews I have read about this book have been overwhelmingly positive. Hillary Brown compared it to Friends with Boys, offering that "this collection is less polished in many ways, but also more charming, especially with Cris Peter’s smart coloring and halftone-dot backgrounds." Laura Sneddon made an impressive list of this book's positive features: "brilliant and funny comic with great characters; starring a woman superhero (whoot!); ninjas!; accessible without any prior comics knowledge; equally enjoyable with said knowledge; kitties!; lovely physical book with extra features and great colouring; suitable for all ages!" Joe Grunenwald summed up, "Your bookshelf will definitely a brighter place for having Superhero Girl on it."

This collection was published by Dark Horse, and they provide a preview here. The online version of the comic can be found here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Revival, Volume One: You're Among Friends

This book collects the first five issues of the hit comic book series. Its premise is a familiar one: the dead have come back to life. But this book is not so much a zombie story as it is a detective yarn. The plot and characters are a fresh take on noir stories, with elements of family relationships, media sensationalism, suspense, religious fanaticism, utter confusion, and horror all set in a sleepy, rural Wisconsin town. The main narrative follows police officer Dana Cypress as she tries to get to the bottom of the situation and also solve a murder mystery. Because of this isolated "the dead are rising" situation, she can speak to the victim, who can't remember what happened, which is pretty horrible. Dana is a single mom whose boss is her father, which creates not a little tension. She also protects a few family secrets (I don't want to give anything away), which creates more tension. I very much enjoyed this aspect of realistic personal relationships in the plot.

But this is not just a crime/mystery/family book. It is also chock full of horrific and creepy images. This ghoulish gallery gets established from the very first scene, where we see a local reporter doing a fluff piece on people with strange jobs. As she is interviewing and recording a junior mortician at work in the crematorium, the unthinkable and unexpected happens:
In time, we also get to see a mysterious, ethereal form haunt the woods in search of a baby:
And not least of all, we get to see that not all of the "revivers" are coherent or in control of themselves, especially not this older woman who is dealing with some major dental issues:
It might go without saying, but this book is for more mature readers who can deal with blood, guts, swearing, and adult themes.

The two driving forces behind this book are writer Tim Seeley and artist Mike Norton (I love the name of his website). In terms of comics, Seeley is probably best known as the co-creator of Hack/Slash, but he has done a bunch of work with various companies, including a long run on G.I. Joe. He loves horror stories and is excellent at setting tones and spinning compelling tales with interesting characters. Norton is a comics veteran probably best known for his Eisner Award-winning webcomic Battlepug, but he also has drawn a great many comics for numerous publishers. He is a masterful visual storyteller. Both creators talk about their work on Revival in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. CBR's Doug Zawisza called the series "an unexpected windfall that evokes an uncomfortable feeling, piques interest and taunts curiosity. It's a good read with great art and a weird, wild diversion from anything else on the stands this week." Alex Lupp gushed, "if you are a fan of character dramas with a tinge of horror and supernatural then this comic-book is a must read!" Drew Bradley summed this book up as "an unsurprisingly great debut to what will hopefully be a long series."

You're Among Friends was published by Image Comics. Here is a preview from Comic Book Resources.

The series is on-going and is currently on issue #18. There are also two additional trade paperback collections available now.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Superior Foes of Spider-Man: Getting the Band Back Together

This book collects the first six issues of what gets called a "sleeper hit" of the year. On face value, it is a book about supervillains, mostly minor foes of Spider-Man who have banded together to take on their common enemy. These are not A-list characters, and probably they are most known for how easily they were taken down in the first volume of The Superior Spider-Man. However, their status as C-list characters that are relatively unknown opens them up for more exploration and interesting situations, as the major corporation that controls these super-powered characters does not fear their likenesses being changed or altered. I mean, what is to be feared, that their Q-scores will go up?

There is a cynical part of me that gets bummed out that more exciting things are not being done with major characters, but at the same time if these companies are still willing to take chances to give expert creators leeway to make interesting and entertaining books, then does that make up for it? I leave that question to the ether and my audience really, so make of it what you will or respond what you think in the comments.

In the meantime, let me tell you about this book, the creation of two experienced creators, best-selling writer Nick Spencer and Eisner Award winning artist Steve Lieber. Spencer has told some excellent stories with his creator owned series Morning Glories, Marvel Comics' Secret Avengers, and DC Comics' Jimmy Olsen. Lieber is known for his expressive illustrations and storytelling in the comics series Whiteout, Detective Comics, and Civil War: Frontline as well as co-authoring The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel. Spencer speaks about his work on the Superior Foes series in this interview, and Lieber speaks more extensively about his career in this interview.

So, what happens when two expert creators are given free reign to weave tales of minor supervillains without pulling any punches? They produce a bunch of compelling heist comics about a band of real jerks. There is Boomerang, an ex-professional baseball player banned for gambling; Speed Demon, a super-fast thief who used to be known as the Whizzer; Shocker, the also unfortunately named villain armed with electro-shock gauntlets; Overdrive, the getaway driver who can transform and super-charge any vehicle, and the Beetle, a woman with a technological suit of armor at her disposal. Together, they bicker and scheme, comprising the new Sinister Six. Even though there are five of them.
Silly villain, don't you know comic books aren't worth any money?
Notably, I think this is a comic book series that is simultaneously attractive to new fans who may not be aware of any of the characters' backstories and still fulfilling to long-time Marvel Comics readers. Spencer and Lieber do not sugarcoat the fact that these people are not nice and would willingly sell each other out in an instant in order to save their own skin or make a big score. But there is just enough learned about each character to make them somewhat relatable, if not sympathetic. Spencer and Lieber also depict some interesting social and power dynamics with a sense humor that is quite exceptional. The manner how the writing and art balance wit and suspense is the most striking feature of this volume, and I think if Oscar Wilde had written Criminal or Incognito, I bet it would resemble The Superior Foes of Spider-Man.
Some other things I liked: They are not always in costume, and they call each other by their first names.

Other reviewers have much good to say about this book. Jason at the Heroesonline blog called it "the best book you haven’t been reading." Jesse Schedeen commented positively that "the series is more grounded and focused on more flawed characters with less flashy powers. It's more a crime drama with costumed characters than a real supervillain book." He also had a great way of describing the series as "all about what the Six are up to when they're not being punched in the face by Spider-Man."

This book was published by Marvel Comics. There is a preview of the first few pages available here from Comic Book Resources.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Hidden is a book about family and also about the Holocaust. It might be simplistically called Maus for middle schoolers, but that facile description detracts from this book's unique and powerful approach to depicting one girl's experiences and the effects of these events on her adulthood and role as a mother and grandmother.

The main narrative happens in France, and the main character is Dounia. We see the treatment of Jews through her young, naive eyes. Her parents try to shield her from the oppression and mistreatment, explaining that the Star of David she is obligated to wear is actually a symbol of her new job as sheriff. Little by little she sees through that facade to the injustices being done to her, her family, and her friends.
Eventually, she is separated from her family and has to pretend to be another couple's child. For her safety she is sent to life in the country, and she fears she will never see her parents again.
This tale is framed with sequences of Dounia as an old woman. She tells her story to her granddaughter Elsa, and it turns out that this is the first time she has said anything about her childhood to anyone in her family, including her own children. This revelation opens up some old wounds, and casts more light on the pain, suffering, and effects of this historical atrocity.

I found this book powerful and deceptively complex, an informative and evocative tale in the form of a child's account. It contains a combination of extremes that balance each other well, tempering its horrors with art that recalls Schulz's Peanuts with its aura of childhood, wisdom, and innocence. The story was direct, compelling, heartbreaking, redemptive, and full of suspense and drama. I really enjoyed reading it and was moved much more than I thought I would be.

This book is the product of a trio of French creators, writer Loic Davillier and artists Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo (all their websites are in French).

Hidden does an excellent job explaining the realities of the Holocaust to a middle grades audience (any audience really), and it has received a number of very positive reviews. Terry Hong remarked that this book effectively tells a story that is horrible and relatable, stating that "the French creative team proves spectacularly adept in balancing the nightmare with moments of innocent humor (“pink shoes”), unexpected laughter (“‘Does Grandpa know you were in love with another boy?’”), and joyful discovery (“‘I did it! I did it!’”)." Publishers Weekly also stated that the book "balances the cruelty of the persecution she experiences with the miraculous generosity of her neighbors." There are a number of other reviews at Library Thing, and one called this book "Highly Recommended."

Hidden was published by First Second. They provide a preview and much more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!