Sunday, January 31, 2010

Barefoot Gen, Volume 1

Although much World War II literature in the US focuses on the European Theatre, there was also just as much activity in Asia. Keiji Nakazawa was a young boy living in Hiroshima, Japan during this time. He was in the city when an atomic bomb was dropped on it and lived to tell the tale. He began adapting his experiences into manga, and the Gen series began running in Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine in 1973. The magazine canceled the series after about a year and a half, but it reappeared in other, less popular manga anthologies until it was completed in 1985.

Barefoot Gen tells the tale of Gen, a young boy, and his family: younger brother Shinji, older sister Eiko, older brother Akira, their father, and their pregnant mother. Gen's father is an artisan who does not support Emperor Hirohito's decisions and policies, and his pacifist views brand the family as traitors by many in the community. This volume centers on the family's daily life and the various kinds of persecution at home and school the children have to deal with. The father has difficulty finding work; Akira joins to military to regain the family's honor; Eiko is tormented by a sadistic teacher; the younger boys turn to begging on the street to get money and food.

Nakazawa portrays a family full of spirit, and it is difficult not to develop positive feelings toward them. These positive feelings make the devastation that comes at the end of the book that much more emotional. This volume is the first of ten, and it sets up a scene of discord, struggle, and vast destruction. The rest of the series deals with the effects of the destructive atomic act and the incredible rebuilding efforts needed to offset this tragedy.

Barefoot Gen is notable as the first Japanese comic to be translated into English. Project Gen, the name for the volunteer effort to spread the anti-war message of the series, has been operating since 1975. The last two volumes were recently published in English for the first time. The story has been adapted into other media, including 3 live action films, 2 anime films, and most recently a television drama series.

Most reviewers recognize the importance of the tale here and its antiwar message, as seen in these reviews by Rob at Panel Patter and Chad Boudreau. Barefoot Gen's frank depictions of the emotional, personal, and physical effects of war makes it difficult to read. The artwork in Barefoot Gen is in a very traditional manga style, a feature which dates the material and sometimes creates a disconnect between the tone and content, according to some reviewers like Greg McElhatton.

Preview pages are available from the book's US publisher, Last Gasp.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Maus: A Survivor's Tale Volume 1: My Father Bleeds History

Originally published as individual chapters in RAW Magazine from 1980 until 1991, Maus is two parallel narratives. One is the story of the strained relationship between Art Spiegelman and his father Vladek. Art is a child of the 1960s, rebellious, troubled, and at-odds with his stubborn, parsimonious, and argumentative dad. The second story is the tale of how Vladek navigated life during Hitler's rise and rule in Europe. This volume covers much of his life before World War II, when he was coming up in the world, wooing women, and making a family of his own.

This volume contains the first 6 chapters of the tale. The story is framed in anthropomorphic terms, with Jews being mice and Germans being cats. The symbolism is immediately evident as a predator/prey relationship, a deadly serious version of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. For those interested in the symbolism, Spiegelman explains his artistic choices in this interview with J. Stephen Bolhafner.

A prolific artist with many works to his credit, Art Spiegelman began doing comics work in the 1970s at the tail end of the underground comix movement. Aside from creating anthologies such as Arcade and RAW, he also worked for Topps Bubble Gum for 20 years where he had a hand in creating such products as the Wacky Packages stickers and Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. He went on to draw a number of controversial covers for the New Yorker magazine in the 1990s and 2000s, and with his wife Françoise Mouly he currently runs a company that makes graphic books for children, TOON Books.

Maus is one of the most celebrated graphic novels ever. It is usually the example most used when people argue that comics and graphic novels have "grown up." It is also credited in large part for raising graphic novels into prominence as more than "just glorified comic books." This volume won a 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award and is generally held in high regard by readers, as seen in this range of reviews from Goodreads. Maus is commonly taught and read in high schools and universities as well.

Still, there is also backlash to the story. Some readers see Spiegelman exploiting his father's holocaust experiences for profit. Political cartoonist and controversy lightning rod Ted Rall criticized Spiegelman's work in Maus as facile and one-dimensional in this 1999 Village Voice article. Such criticisms may be few, but they are loud ones.

Some preview pages from this volume are available on this page from its current US publisher Pantheon, a division of Random House.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Freddie & Me

Subtitled "A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody," Freddie & Me is one story with multiple aspects. It is the tale of a young boy growing up, an account of a British family adjusting to life in the US, and also a portrait of a fan's fixation on Freddie Mercury. The story follows Mike from a young boy, detailing his squabbles with his sister, his awkward teen years, and his fish-out-of-water social life in school. It is a relatable, evocative story that captures many of the beats of a typical disaffected teenager story, but it does so with great elan.

Running parallel to this narrative is also a look at popular music in the 1970s and 1980s. Freddie Mercury's life, including his work with the mega-popular group Queen, is detailed alongside Mike's. Also, there are fun cameos by other musical figures, including George Michael, Andrew Ridgely, and Brian May. Changes in musical tastes and attitudes accompany the life changes that Mike goes through.

Mike Dawson, who wrote and drew Freddie & Me, was nominated in the Promising New Talent category of the Ignatz Awards in 2002. Aside from this book, he is most famous for his series about a 30-something supernerd, Gabagool! This interview with Tom Spurgeon details much about his life, creative process, and more information about Freddie & Me. Also, here is an podcast interview with Dawson that was posted on iFanboy.

Reviews about the book are generally good, though sometimes tepid. Greg McElhatton thoroughly enjoyed the story and found himself humming the Queen songs aloud to himself. Johanna Draper Carlson expresses a disappointment with a lack of in-depth explanations and also wonders whether the events depicted are extraordinary enough to warrant attention. A range of other reviews can be found at Goodreads.

This book was published in the US by Bloomsbury. 10 preview pages are available here from Publishers Weekly.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Japan Ai: A Tall Girl's Adventures in Japan

"Ai" means "love" in Japanese, and this volume is a love note written about that island nation. Within these pages are vignettes from three women's travels in Japan. They visit beautiful gardens and temples, see breathtaking vistas, travel in bullet trains, engage in some cosplay, shop, and eat all over the country. Some of the story revolves around Aimee adjusting to different cultural practices, such as the public nudity at the onsen (communal baths) or being gawked at because of her height. The trip culminates with a visit to the largest VOLKS doll store in the world.

Aimee Steinberger created this work. She is a professional animator who has worked on The Simpsons, Futurama, as well as Disney and Warner Brothers movies. She draws this travel account in a style that combines American cartoons with shojo manga. The result is a very expressive, energetic, colorful, and cute series of drawings. The series of sketches provide individual scenes as well as carry a travel narrative. Her love of Japanese culture really comes through.

The book is chock full of information about Japan, and it includes a very helpful glossary and a series of further resources in the Appendix. This labor of love was great fun for her to create, and she describes her creative process for it in this interview. Reviewers who are interested in manga, anime, or Japanese popular culture, such as Deb Aoki and Brigid Alverson, have expressed very positive reactions to the book. Most reviewers cite that this is a well done work. The biggest criticisms about it are that this is a quick survey without much depth and that the book seems to cater mostly to female readers. On the plus side, Steinberger makes it very easy for someone to reenact this trip should it seem appealing.

Go! Comi published this book. They provide many great resources for the book, including an extended preview, Aimee's journal, and bonus drawings and photos that were not included in the book.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bad Boy Trouble

The first in the Archie "New Look" series, Bad Boy Trouble was originally published in Betty & Veronica's Double Digest as a serial. The story was taken from a 1991 Michael Pellowski YA novel Bad News Boyfriend. The plot follows the Riverdale gang as they encounter a new arrival in town, Nick St. Clair.

Nick is a stereotypical bad seed. He wears a soul patch, rides a motorcycle, and has a thing for blondes. Even though he repeatedly tries to woo Betty, he switches gears when Veronica shows interest in him and he finds out she is loaded. Veronica turns her back on her friends and family even when confronted with Nick's bad behavior. They get together and hatch a plot to get her to see just how much of a mistake she is making.

This tale attempts to make the Archie characters more realistic. They have more extreme reactions to each other, and perhaps there is more strain to their relationships than in stories past. Nevertheless, there is still a sitcom-type feel to the story, and no one will be surprised to find the status quo returns in the end.

This attempt to update the Archie characters is scripted by Melanie Morgan and drawn by Steven Butler and Al Milgrom. Morgan scripts the New Look stories and does not appear to have other comics credits. Butler has drawn a number of comics over the past three decades and was the designer behind this new look. An interview here tells more about his work on the redesign. Milgrom has a huge list of credits as a comics creator, available here.

The "New Look" Archie stories have been received in a mixed manner. Some fans, such as John Brownlee, simply do not like the "horrible" new look. Others, such as Penny Kenny, think that the story is well done. These stories have drawn more attention to the Archie comics than any time in the past couple decades. Perhaps this new direction will lead to a perpetuation of the characters for future readers.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Clan Apis

There are a number of insect-based cartoon movies, such as the Bee Movie or A Bug's Life, but none of them do as good a job of combining biological facts and a fun plot as much as Clan Apis. This book follows the life of Nyuki from a larva to an adult. She is an unconventional bee in that she questions much of regular hive life. Her older sister Dvorah provides counsel and rationales for a lot of the rules that Nyuki challenges. Nyuki's life gets complicated once she leaves the hive and meets some of the outside lifeforms.

Jay Hosler is an associate professor of biology at Juniata College. He received his doctorate degree studying bees, and he provides lots of great facts about them within the narrative. He also presents lots of information about dung beetles, praying mantises, and spiders as well. There are lots of neat tidbits in here, such as in the names (Nyuki is Swahili for bee; Dvorah is bee in Hebrew). A lot of these facts and information come across within the course of the story in such a fun, breezy manner. Hosler is a great storyteller, and his pictures tell an ultimately very affecting tale.

Clan Apis received multiple nominations for Ignatz and Eisner Awards. In addition to professional recognition, the reviews are very positive, even ones from "hard" science publications such as Discover Magazine. Here is a page where many reviews of the book can be found.

This book was funded by a Xeric Grant. It consists of five chapters, each originally published as separate comic books. This collected version is published by Active Synapse.

The book's official page has many resources available, including links to the science behind the story, and some funny Science Cartoons. There is another cartoon on the site that is also in the collection, titled Killer Bee, where we discover that Hosler is very allergic to bees. Ironic, eh?