Friday, November 20, 2020

Flamer

Flamer is a book about personal turmoil. The main character here is Aiden Navarro and he is wrestling with a lot in his life. He gets grief from people because he is part-Asian. He is anxious about his transition from parochial to public school, as he's decided to make that move as he is entering high school. 

He is also at summer camp, a place where he's sent partly to be active and lose some weight, which also weighs on his mind. He finds that he relates much easier to his female friends, so he feels isolated by the often toxic masculinity of his peers. He gets teased and taunted pretty consistently, and he finds solace with his bunk mate Elias, a football player who is actually a cool guy who is kind to him.

Aiden's relationship with Elias adds more confusion to his mental state and makes him question his sexuality. On one hand, he feels good to have a person who is actually friendly to him but on the other hand he has feelings that confound him. As a devout Catholic and altar boy, he reasons that he could not possibly have such feelings, because he has always been a "good" person. Aiden also has an affinity for X-Men comic books, and his favorite character is Jean Grey. He can relate to her shift from being a hero to the villainous Phoenix, and, in a sinister twist, he begins to wonder if he should do what she ultimately did in order to put matters to rest.

As you might tell from my synopsis, this book trucks in some major life themes. It is about a person's search for self, dealing with religion as well as social institutions that both define and restrict people. It is also a deeply thoughtful and personal book, and I found it very easy to relate to and feel for Aiden. The struggles of a middle/almost high schooler are palpable as well as his travails with bullying. Even so, I like how he's portrayed so that he's no saint, but trying very hard to make sense of some very disparate ideas and beliefs. His struggle is literally life and death, and I was gratified to see this all-too-common but hardly spoken-about conflict is given such thoughtful, relatable, and realistic treatment. 

The artwork, which is rendered in black and white for the most part, save for a number of instances where oranges, yellows, and red flash across the page to indicate or moments of heightened emotion, covey so much emotion and feeling through spare imagery. There is much to relate to or cringe from, from moments where Aiden recoils into himself because of casual cruelty or overt abuse to other scenes where he can find security through dark and self-deprecating humor.

In an afterword that follows the story, Mike Curato admits that some of this story is based on his own experiences. He has illustrated a number of picture books, most notably the highly popular and award-winning book Little Elliot, Big City (which both my oldest boy and I adore). He also won the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Founder's Award in 2014. He speaks extensively about his work and inspirations behind Flamer in this interview as well as this one.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. In their starred review, Kirkus simply advised people, "Buy it. Read it. Share it." Publishers Weekly called it "emotional and raw." Juanita Giles wrote that this book "offers real hope - not just rainbows - to queer kids."

Flamer was published by Henry Holt and Co. BYR, and they offer a preview and more here.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Maids

Maids is a crime tale based on the Papin sisters, Christine and Léa, who worked together as maids until they murdered their employer's wife and daughter. This is a slow burn of a book, only six chapters long, with the first five establishing background and subtly ramping up tension. The events occur mostly in the Lancelin residence, where Christine began work as a maids. She advocated for her younger sister Léa to be hired on as  cook, and the two were reunited in service.

Over the course of the book, we get insights into the young women's lives, from their troubled upbringing to their years in a convent. They were unusually close and frequently got into trouble. As maids, they often were up to some form of chicanery, pilfering items, messing with food, and trying to enjoy some of their employers' finery for themselves. They worked everyday from 6 AM to 7 PM and were also treated shabbily by the Mrs. Lancelin and their spoiled daughter Genevieve. On February 2, 1933 after being blamed for a power outage in the house due to a faulty iron, the sisters brutally murdered Mrs. and Miss Lancelin.

The artwork in this book is spare but masterfully laid out in ways that build suspense to a crescendo. The color palette is warm, which contributes to a muted, dark ambience that lend a drabness to scenes of everyday life and also a sinister edge to the violence. It's a beautifully affecting book, and Skelly gets every ounce of nuance and feeling from her economical imagery. This book is gorgeous and horrible as well as a clinic in storytelling.

And what an opening page!
 This book is the creation of Katie Skelly whose prior comics include My Pretty Vampire, Operation Margarine, Nurse Nurse, and The Agency (NSFW). She speaks extensively about her work on Maids in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been positive. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly summed up, "This subversive horror story will satisfy readers who like their crime stories served with gender and class analysis and a pretty whipped topping." Writing about Skelly's art, Etelka Lehoczky opined, "It's a style that invites you to take it at face value while mocking your inclination to do any such thing. The theme Skelly expresses in every layer of this book is our tendency — or need, really — to underestimate anyone and anything we can't immediately assimilate: maids, girls, comics, comics about girls." Tom Murphy had a different take on the visuals, writing, "Its strong structure and narrative get as close as possible to the bond of blood between the sisters, but the bubblegum realisation on the page creates an uneasy dissonance."

Maids was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more information about it here. Due to violence and adult subject matter, I suggest this book for mature readers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Class Act

New Kid was a landmark book, the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Award. This follow-up is called a "companion" to that book, because it is not so much a sequel as it is a continuation of the story. It still follows the life of Jordan Banks, now in his second year at Riverdale Academy Day School, a very sheltered private school in the Bronx. Jordan still wants to be an artist and is struggling with his parents about applying to an arts-focused school. But this book also takes a larger focus on his classmate Drew Ellis, one of the the other African-American students at RAD, who has a different set of concerns.

Just like with New Kid, Drew deals with the subtle and overt sorts of racism that pervade life at RAD. He is more athletic and popular than Jordan, though he won't go out for the basketball team because he does not want to be seen as a stereotype. He also has relationship issues, as he gets a girlfriend named Ashley, who tries to impress him with a constant stream of baked goods. She keeps baking him sweet potato pies, which makes him uneasy because it's well intended but also racist. She, and other kids, insist on touching his hair, which really makes him uneasy when they totally ignore his telling them not to. 

Drew also gets singled out to lead a tour of students from their new "sister school" Cardinal De Bard Junior High School in the south Bronx, because he "looks more" like the students there. This makes him pause because it's a place close by Jordan's house, so he would seem to be a better choice, but the teacher organizing this relationship (a white man) thinks that the visitors will be more comfortable with the darker-skinned Drew. 

This theme of exchange runs throughout the book, first in the school visit, but later when Jordan and Drew visit the home of their ultra-rich classmate Liam over the Thanksgiving break. Liam's house is huge, he owns all the video games, and his family insists on eating weird, overly-crunchy flatbread pizza, so the two boys feel like they are in a different world. They also wonder if they could ever truly be friends with someone whose life is so different from their own. Later still, Liam visits Jordan's house, eats a variety of different sorts of food, and gets to hang out with other kids at the local rec center. Although all the boys live in the same borough, it seems like they live in different worlds, though they start to learn to appreciate where the other is from. 

What is impressive about this book is how well it brings out issues of race in relatable and moving ways that are not utterly overt or didactic. Part of this characteristic lays in the artwork, which is colorful and inviting. It also rewards fans of comics and graphic novels, with chapter breaks that reference popular books like This Was Our Pact, Hey Kiddo, and Real Friends as well as other popular media. This book is fun, full of visual puns (especially with local businesses and signage) and witty repartee that make the book feel human and realistic. I particularly like Jordan and Drew's game of calling each other by different, inventive names, a playful way of addressing the fact that many of the teachers at the school constantly confuse them or forget their names. And the supporting cast is very strong, from the frequently misguided teachers at RAD to the pesky Andy, who tries too hard to fit in, to the fantastic Alexandra, a strange and wise girl who definitely walks to the beat of her own drummer. Dispensing wisdom from a hand puppet, she is the Yoda/Silent Bob of this book, and one of my favorites because she appears so comfortable with who she is.

In many ways, this is a book about experiences in middle school, full of big questions and the unease of finding one's way in the world. Certainly, today that also includes navigating systems of institutionalized inequality and racism. And it is not utterly dismissive about what it satirizes, even the consistently tone-deaf attempts by the RAD administration to address racism. It offers no pat answers, but it does put human faces to this very important conversation.

Jerry Craft wrote and drew this book. In addition to New Kid, he has drawn multiple children's books and graphic novels, mostly based on his comic strip Mama's Boyz. He speaks extensively about his work on Class Act in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Esther Keller advised, "Librarians should stock up on as many copies as they can." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded (with a pun even!), "A well-Crafted, visually rich, truth-telling tale for our troubled times that affirms the eternal importance of friends." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, "Deftly weaving discussions of race, socioeconomics, colorism, and solidarity into an accessible narrative, Craft offers a charming cast journeying through the complicated landscapes of puberty, self-definition, and changing friendships, all while grappling with the tensions of attending an institution that structurally and culturally neglects students of color."

Class Act was published by Quill Tree Books, and they offer a teachers guide and more info about it here.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

I should preface this review by stating that Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors ever. I have read every one of his novels, checked out many of his nonfiction essays, and laughed at his cameo in Back to School countless times. One of the high points of my college career was getting to hear him speak my freshman year. So, to say that I have high expectations for this book is a bit of an understatement. Beyond my own background, some of the weight of my expectations also lay in this book partly being adapted by writer Ryan North, a brilliant comics creator/humorist responsible for some of my favorite works, namely Dinosaur Comics, Jughead, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

For those who have not read the original novel, Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man named Billy Pilgrim who becomes "unstuck in time."  Throughout the novel he bounces back and forth across his own timeline, witnessing his death, marriage, experiences in World War II, abduction by aliens who placed him in an interstellar zoo, and meetings with literary hero Kilgore Trout, among other things. As a result, he takes a unique view of humanity, forming opinions about the capriciousness of war and societal values.

As you can see from the excerpt above, which opens the book, this adaptation takes advantage of its medium in ways that enrich this reading experience. The tweaks firmly entrench the book in its own historical context as well as the medium of comics, and they are done in very smart ways. This book uses some of the unique features of comics to recast and retell portions of the novel to convey its spirit without being a strictly literal adaptation. For instance, using panels to play with time and imagination:

Or changing into a newspaper comics format to give short bursts of back story:

As you can see, it is almost as if this story was originally conceived to work as a graphic novel. Like its source material, this book is full of pathos, laughs, and dark observations about humanity. It's a witty, fantastically moving, and trenchant book. This adaptation is one of the best I've seen, in any medium, as much a classic as its source material. Perhaps this is faint praise, because most graphic novel adaptations do not take advantage of the affordances the medium allows. I wish I was not so surprised that reading an adaptation of a novel that hinges on continual shifts in time and space in a medium (comics) that constantly manipulates time and space is an excellent experience as this one. I feel that many creators, certainly not most literary adapters, do not take as much advantage as the medium as these ones do.

That the creators of this book have many years of comics experience under their belts should come as no surprise. North has won multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards for his work on Adventure Time comics, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Jughead. Artist Albert Monteys was art director of the Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves from 2006-2011 and also created the Eisner Award nominated science fiction series Universe! Both creators speak about their work on this adaptation in this interview, and Monteys shares his take in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been raves. In a starred review from Library Journal Tom Batten praised it as "the best, and most effective, graphic novel adaptation of a literary novel in recent memory." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "a rare graphic adaptation that enriches a literary classic." David Weber called it "a perfect graphic novel adaptation" as well as "an absolute joy to read."

Slaughterhouse-Five was published by Archaia, and they offer more info about it here.