Monday, August 30, 2010

The Quitter

If this were a superhero story, The Quitter might have been called the Secret Origin of Harvey Pekar. A life-long resident of Cleveland, Pekar was a ground-breaking creator who brought memoir, ordinary life, and autobiography to the comic book world. His stories typically followed his job as a file clerk for a VA hospital, the people he interacted with there, his relationship with his wife, his daily routines, or the jazz music he so loved and appreciated.

Pekar self-published his stories in American Splendor, a series of comics that have been coming out since 1976. The series featured art by underground comix legend Robert Crumb, who was an early supporter. It also attracted a great number of other artists who told Pekar's stories. He also wrote a few graphic novels, including Our Cancer Year, a chronicle of his battle with cancer that won the 1995 Harvey Award. His comic works were adapted into a movie that won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Fim Festival. Pekar died in July of this year, and his life is properly celebrated in this obituary.

The Quitter tells the story of Harvey's early years, from his days growing up in a Jewish/Italian neighborhood and learning to take up and fight for himself. He also detailed his coming up under very traditional, old-country Jewish parents, trying to fit in various neighborhoods, and his many undertakings. The reader follows Pekar from job to job and pursuit to pursuit with access to his private thoughts and feelings. This is a very honest and uncompromising look into the life of a young person struggling to find his place in the world, a person who messes up and who tends to quit when things get difficult. Although it portrays relatively mundane events the book is still compelling and evocative.

Pekar's contributor here is Dean Haspiel, a writer/artist who has numerous credits in comics, graphic novels, and movies, tending toward biographical works. Of late, he won an Emmy Award for his title designs for the HBO series Bored to Death.

Like Pekar's other works, this one has been typically well received. The reviewer at Grovel liked Haspiel's attempts to capture the young Harvey but felt that this work was more for established Pekar fans than new ones. Blogger charlieblizz differed on opinion here and found the book's conversational tone very inviting. Rick K wrote that even though it is a thin volume "The Quitter has the heft of a full novel, only it is admittedly a lot faster, more fun and easier to read."

A preview is available here from the book's publisher, Vertigo.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

Yummy is the strong story of a news report many often see but seldom register, the youthful gang member who kills an innocent bystander and provokes local outrage. Yummy is Robert Sandifer, who in 1994 became a poster child for gang violence after being featured on the cover of Time Magazine. He was notorious for his young age as a gang gunman (he was 11), the senseless violence surrounding his life, and his involvement in the Black Disciples gang active in Chicago. He got his nickname for his love of Snickers bars and cookies. In the book we see that he was childish in other ways also , such as sleeping with a teddy bear and being prone to violent outbursts. The story is told from the perspective of a fictional classmate, but it is based on media portrayals, public records, and personal accounts and packs an emotional wallop.

Yummy was written by Greg Neri who writes for middle graders and YA audiences, focusing on works for reluctant readers. He has published two other novels, Chess Rumble and Surf Mules. He writes about his reasons for writing Yummy in this interview and also on this page, which also has a number of positive reviews from Kirkus and other impressive organizations. The black and white art provided by Randy DuBurke sets a gritty tone and works well for evoking emotions. DuBurke has been a published illustrator for the better part of two decades, working for DC Comics in the late 1980s and early '90s but more recently focusing on children's books and graphic novels. His debut The Moon Ring won the 2003 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award for illustration.

The reviews for Yummy have been very positive. Doret commented on the craft of the book and the sadness and power of particular passages. The School Library Journal was impressed by the realism and hard questions the book asks in its detailed review while also providing links to interviews and further information. James Bucky Carter added that "It is not a fun read. But, perhaps it should be a required read. Expect to be angered and disturbed."

A preview is available here from the publisher, Lee & Low Books.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Kafka is part adaptation, part criticism, and part history of Franz Kafka's life and works. The Jewish Czech author is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, credited with capturing the state of modern humanity in terms of industrialization, urbanization, and changing societal mores. The greatest sign of his importance is the adjective kafkaesque entering into popular use, a term that this book emphasizes. Among the roughly chronological account of Kafka's life, including his struggles with a domineering and abusive father and his mainly strange relationships with various women, are adaptations of his works. These include famous ones, The Metamorphosis and The Trial, but also shorter works such as The Burrow and his unfinished final work Amerika.

This book was created as part of the Introducing series of graphic novels that covers famous authors, philosophers, scientists, concepts, and fields of study. It was written by David Zane Mairowitz who is famous for his plays, literary criticisms/adaptations, and radio plays. He was also one of the founders of the counter-culture International Times. The art was provided by one of the most celebrated and controversial comics artists, Robert Crumb. Crumb is famous for his underground comix work, creating Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, the album cover to Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills, and the "Keep on Truckin'" meme. He has been a long commentator on jazz and also on what he sees as the decline of American culture. Of late, he has produced a graphic adaptation of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

Given the successes of the writer and artist, it's no surprise to find many positive reviews of this book. Brian Heater wrote that "Kafka is a terrific little book, and deserves to be embraced by those Crumb and Kafka fans." Chris Barsanti called it " one of the most exhilarating graphic works of the year." Giving a contrary take, and despite admiring Crumb's illustrations, Christian Perring was underwhelmed by the book.

A short preview is available here from the book's current publisher Fantagraphics Books. Past editions have had different titles, including Introducing Kafka, Kafka for Beginners, and R. Crumb's Kafka.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites

Beasts of Burden is a high concept book, part Ghostbusters, part The Exorcist, and part The Incredible Journey. Rex, Ace, Red, Jack, Pugsley, and Orphan are pets, all dogs except for Orphan who is a cat, and they deal with supernatural threats to their neighborhood. Each animal has a distinct personality and much of the joy and humor comes from their interactions. They deal with a number of precarious situations, including a haunted doghouse, an unnatural giant frog, witches, and a sadistic animal abuser. Although they evoke imagery from classic children's book paintings and include snappy dialogue, the stories are rather dark and often horrific. More details about the series and its background can be found in this article by Shaun Manning.

The book's creators, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, are both veterans of the comics industry. Dorkin is famous as the writer/artist of Dork and Milk and Cheese and is a multiple Eisner Award winner. He has also done a bunch of television work with his wife Sarah Dyer, including scripts for Superman Adventures and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Thompson is an accomplished comics artist and painter well known for her work on Neil Gaiman's Sandman and her own Scary Godmother.

Beasts of Burden has received a number of professional accolades, among them Thompson's Eisner Award for Best Painter in 2004 for “Stray” and Dorkin and Thompson's joint win of the 2005 Eisner for Best Short Story for “Unfamiliar.”
It has also received many positive reviews. Newsarama's Sarah Jaffe wrote that the mix of cuteness and horror "sucks you in and leaves you waiting for more." Reviewer Steve Kanaras simply called it "wonderful." A more detailed review from Tom Spurgeon gets at many of the creator's strengths.

This collection is of a 4-issue series and two short stories. A preview of the first issue is available from the book's publisher Dark Horse. The complete short story "Stray" is available here.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Happy First Blogaversary!

This blog is now one year old!

Thanks to everyone who has read or commented on what I've been posting :)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How I Made it to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story

Stacy is a 17-year-old having a nervous breakdown. She is taking drugs, struggling with bulimia, and barely maintaining relationships with friends, her mother, and her artistic, temperamental boyfriend. She voluntarily enters into treatment at the Golden Meadows Hospital and what follows is a combination of doctor's reports, flashbacks, therapy sessions, and insights from four friends from different points in her life. All of these different data sources provide a rich, affecting narrative that demands attention. The story lacks the melodramatic touches of a Girl, Interrupted but paints a more human picture.

This debut graphic novel was written and drawn by Tracy White, who has created comics for numerous online and print publications. She has twice been nominated for an Ignatz Award for her webcomic Traced. In addition to her comics work, she is also currently an adjunct professor in the Interactive Telecommunication Program, part of New York University's TISCH School of the Arts. This interview at GraphicNovelReporter offers more insight into the book's background.

Reviews have been very positive, focusing on the emotional impact of the characters and the compelling story. The Mother Daughter Book Club wrote that it was a "fascinating and informative" book that "could open up interesting conversations between mothers and their daughters aged 14 and up." Kim Bacciella "loved the blunt honesty of Stacy" and also "admired [White's] courage in sharing her story." Katie Monnin called the book "honest and unashamed" and "hard to put down."

A video preview of the first chapter is available from the publisher Macmillan.

Thank you for the preview copy, Gina! :)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Amaterasu: Return of the Sun

Amaterasu tells an origin story in the Shinto tradition. It tells of how the gods Izanagi and Izanami created Japan and its gods. Amaterasu is one of their children, along with her siblings Tsukiyomi and Susano. They each have their areas to rule, she the day sky and sun, Tsukiyomi the night sky and moon and Susano the seas, storms, and underworld. In this version of the story, Susano feels he has been given a poor position in his father's world and rages in anger, causing his sister to hide. Her absence plunges the world into darkness and misery, and a band of crafty gods hatches a plan to draw her back out into the world.

This graphic adaptation was published under the Graphic Universe imprint of the Lerner Publishing Group. It was written by Paul D. Storrie and drawn by Ron Randall. Storrie is a long time comics writer, specializing in adventure stories based on classical myths and legends, but also dabbling in monster and superhero stories. He is a frequent contributor to Graphic Universe's line of Myth and Legends books. Randall has drawn comics for decades and has worked for all the big companies. He is best known for his work on fantasy and sci-fi books, such as his original series Trekker and licensed Star Wars adventures. Currently he is working on DC Comics' Doom Patrol.

The creators at Graphic Universe are all industry professionals who put out well drawn, sometimes beautiful work, and the reviews have been largely positive. I had a hard time finding reviews for this book, and Good Comics for Kids liked the book well enough, finding it a good alternative to "the dusty old tales" typical of myth books. In all it is a well-told, well-illustrated tale that many US students would be unfamiliar with. Also, I feel it would make for good comparisons with other origin myths from different cultures. The book also contains a few educational features, such as a map of Japan, a small glossary of terms, and a brief explanation of what Shinto is.

A brief preview is available by clicking on the cover image on the book's official page.