Monday, November 30, 2009

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon

The race to put a man on the moon was one of the greatest competitions of the Cold War, and almost everyone is familiar with the end of contest and Neil Armstrong's famous speech from the lunar surface. What is not as well known is all of the hard work, calculations, and failures that preceded this great accomplishment. T-Minus captures many of the struggles that took place within both the US and the Soviet space programs beginning at T-minus 12 years before the first moon landing in 1969 (that would be 1957 for those of you who don't want to do the subtraction).

Movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 show us the exploits of the astronauts, but they don't show as much about the engineers, technicians, and mathematicians who made space travel possible in the first place. Jim Ottaviani has almost cornered the market in terms of creating graphic novels about mathematics and scientists and here he shows just how much they contributed to the great success Armstrong eventually was celebrated for. However he does not give short shrift to the pilots and other space travelers. He paints a picture of them as people brave and capable enough to fly vehicles that were basically fancy projectiles.

This book contains a wealth of resources provided in an accessible manner. There is a time line of dates that runs parallel to the narrative, chronicling successful and failing launches. The important players in the story are identified clearly, credentials listed, and acronyms explained in footnotes. There is even a bibliography for further reading toward the end, neatly disguised as a newspaper page.

T-Minus would be a great resource for learning about Cold War positioning or aeronautic engineering. More information about the content of the book and Ottaviani's aims as an author can be found in this interview done by Tom Spurgeon. For all of the technical and historical information given, the narrative still flows well from moment to moment, capturing the wonder and spectacle of space travel as well as the tragic moments that often accompanied failure. Reviews online are frequently positive, noting the good blend between facts and drama, such as these by Ted Anderson and Jack Shafer.

The art is crisply presented in black and white. It was drawn by the Cannon brothers, Zander and Kevin, who are frequent Ottaviani collaborators. More about them can be seen at their blog Big Time Attic.

For more science-centered graphic novels, visit G.T. Labs, Ottaviani's official site.
On the T-Minus page, there are teacher resources, preview page links, and other links to space-related websites.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Eternal Smile

This is a collection of three stories by Gene Yang and Derek Kim, the authors of American Born Chinese and Same Difference and Other Stories respectively. Individually their works have won much praise: ABC won the 2007 Printz Award and was nominated for a National Book Award while Kim won the three major comics industry awards (the Eisner, the Ignatz, and the Harvey) for his work on SDaOS.

This collection brings together three separate stories that all focus on unstable relationships between fact and fantasy. Fiction especially acts as a great coping mechanism for hardships, trepidations, and ennui. It is quite redemptive, guiding uneasy or lost people to find hidden strengths and pleasures within themselves and their worlds. The three stories here are:

"Duncan's Kingdom"
This story was published originally by Image Comics in 1999. Duncan is a member of the Royal Guard who seeks vengeance for the murder of the king by diabolical frogmen. Also, he is motivated by the beautiful princess's hand in marriage in exchange for the frog king's head. Ostensibly set in a medieval setting, a few modern objects enter into the picture, and Duncan's sense of reality is seriously questioned.

"Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile"
One part The Truman Show and two parts Uncle Scrooge comic, this story mostly follows the exploits of a Disneyesque character. An extremely wealthy frog plots and plans ways to build even more wealth so that he won't bump his head on the ground when he dives into his personal money pit. Events turn in strange directions after he decides to use religious beliefs and practices in a money-making scheme.

"Urgent Request"
Janet is an office worker who struggles to be noticed and rewarded for her efforts on the job. In response to feelings of uselessness, she participates in the classic Nigerian email scam, sending huge amounts of money to a prince who promises to repay her once his proper office and situation are restored.

Although these three tales are separate narratives, Yang and Kim tie them together visually and thematically. Objects, such as bottles of Snap Cola appear in each, as do images of frogs, and other features. Astute readers can catch these features, and they definitely add to a sense of cohesion in the book.

This book has received a range of reviews, characterized by a mixed review such as this one from Sandy at I Love Rob Liefeld, who likes the art and themes in the stories but is unsatisfied by the package as a whole. Brian Heater at The Daily Crosshatch was happier with the whole created from the three component stories, as was Greg McElhatton at Read About Comics who really enjoyed the blend of Kim's and Yang's work here. Jason Borelli enjoyed the stories just fine but also does not think that they live up to the standards created by the collaborators' earlier works.

Excerpts are available here from First Second. I would also like to thank them for providing me with a copy of this book.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Masterpiece Comics

R. (for Robert) Sikoryak has been creating comics and illustrations professionally for 2 decades, and his ability to assume a variety of styles has led him into a career illustrating high profile publications such as The New Yorker and Nickelodeon Magazine. His works in Masterpiece Comics take elements of popular culture combined in novel ways with classic works of literature. The blend of low and high brow elements bring a different sense of understanding and interest to the comics, as well as an element of humor.

Masterpiece Comics collects various works that have appeared in Drawn & Quarterly and Raw over the years. The unlikely combinations that appear in this volume include Dante's Inferno done in a series of 10 Bazooka Joe gum wrapper cartoons, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment re-imagined in the style of the Bob Kane-era Batman comic, and Kafka's The Metamorphosis recast with the Peanuts gang (starring "Good ol' Gregor Brown").

As an educator, I see a lot of connections that could be made between the adaptations here and discussions of the literature included. There is great potential in speaking about the choices Sikoryak made in choosing the genres and comics he did for these adaptations as well as how well the tenor of the original work fits into this different context. And if nothing else, these adapted versions can get some reluctant readers to be at least familiar with the classic stories they portray.

These comics do not parody the original works of literature so much as they do the cartoon sources drawn upon, as pointed out in this thoughtful review by Douglas Wolk. Sikoryak's ability to tell long narratives in very shorthand ways and communicate these tales to broader audiences is praised in these reviews by Tim Gebhart and Martin Levin. There is a range of reviews of this book also available at Goodreads.

For those seeking more of his work or further adaptations he has created, R. Sikoryak's official homepage is here. Some preview pages of Masterpiece Comics are also available there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Matchmakers

Adapted from It's First Love, Jughead Jones, a YA novel written by Michael Pellowski and John Goldwater and published in 1991, The Matchmakers is the second entry in Archie Comics' New Look Series. These books update the perennially teenage characters for today. The plot of the story involves a scheme to pair Jughead (the "fifth wheel") with Sandy Sanchez, a smart, athletic, and goal-oriented classmate. Betty and Veronica do this by getting them to compete as partners in a coed school competition. Hi-jinks ensue as the whole gang is engaged in the games and the coupling they set up seems to have worked too well.

Melanie J. Morgan provided the script for this volume, and she has scripted all of the New Look books thus far. Joe Staton and Al Milgrom provided the art. They are both comic book artists who have been in the industry for decades. Staton is probably best known for drawing superhero comics like Green Lantern and his creation E-Man as well as his current work on Scooby-Doo comic books. Milgrom is best known for his work on Firestorm, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-man, and West Coast Avengers. Their artwork portrays a more realistic version of the characters instead of the classic cartoon version originated by Bob Montana and Dan DeCarlo.

The Archie New Look books have grabbed a fair share of news attention for the make-overs of classic characters, but the reviews on the books themselves are mixed. Some are positive, such as this one by Penny Kenny. Others comment on the cluelessness of the story-telling especially in regards to the unrealistic portrayals of teenagers' actions, as described here by Johanna Draper Carlson, and on the dramatic character changes and clunky plot, as described by Brian Cronin. The news coverage or new art style may have given a boost to sales though, as more New Look stories continue to appear.

Archie Comics has multiple previews of the story here (scroll down to see them).

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Astro Boy, Volume 3

Osamu Tezuka is considered the "god of manga" who created hundreds of volumes of comics in all types of genres while also being one of the driving forces behind the anime (Japanese cartoons) industry as well. A figure analogous to Walt Disney, his legacy lies in the countless stories and memorable characters he created, and without a doubt Astro Boy (originally called The Mighty Atom) is his most famous creation. This volume is part of Dark Horse Comics' ongoing efforts to publish the complete series in English, and it contains two stories, "The Greatest Robot in the World" and "Mad Machine."

"The Greatest Robot in the World" makes up the majority of the volume. It was originally serialized in 1964-1965 and is considered by many Tezuka's best work with the character. The plot of the story revolves around a former sultan who has built a powerful robot named Pluto. The sultan wishes to prove that Pluto is the most powerful by having him battle and destroy the 7 most advanced robots in the world. This mission gets delayed when Astro Boy refuses to duel Pluto, and so Pluto kidnaps Uran, Astro's little sister, to lure him into battle. Instead of merely being threatening, Pluto befriends Uran and begins to question his destructive mission.

"Mad Machine" is a shorter tale of a blackmail plot originally published in 1958. Dr. Foola is a greedy genius who has invented a machine that makes other machines go crazy. He demands billions of dollars in ransom in return for not bringing entire cities to a screeching halt. Dr. Tenma reconfigues Astro so that he can contend with this evil doctor and shut down the diabolical machine.

Even though Tezuka's work in this volume was done long ago, it still holds up well. The art is energetic, detailed, and very expressive. And as detailed in this review from Deb Aoki, the story is very forward thinking for a comic made more than 4 decades ago, even with some cultural insensitivity in the depictions of Arab characters.

"The Greatest Robot in the World" first appeared in manga form but has been adapted to other media. A version of the story from the 1980 Astro Boy cartoon is available here on YouTube.
Additionally, Astro Boy will be introduced to a new generation of viewers in an anticipated theatrical release in 2009.