Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception

Prolific science graphic novel writer Jim Ottaviani continues his science of the unscientific series with this look into the history of stage levitation. The book follows this sensational trick from its origins in the work of John Neville Maskelyne ("The Levi") who entranced turn of the (20th) century British audiences with his stage play The Entranced Fakir. His act was stolen and brought to the United States by Harry Kellar (who had tried to buy the act from Maskelyne to no avail) with fantastic success. The act was improved upon by engineer Guy Jarrett who wrote a much-used guide to magic and who also narrates the story. When Kellar tired of touring, he sold his act to Howard Thurston, a charismatic showman with a penchant for card tricks. Thurston went on to being one of the biggest acts of the 20th century.

In this book, Ottaviani focuses not only on how levitation tricks are done but also on the personalities of all the magicians who used them. As with his other works, this book is thoroughly researched and is chock full of information. The art was provided by Janine Johnston, a freelance artist with many credits, including Star Wars and Poison Elves comic books. Her gray-scaled art looks almost water-colored and provides a great atmosphere for the narrative. These two interviews shed more light on the two creators' work on this volume.

Reviews of the book have been largely positive. Johanna Draper Carlson recommended the book, commenting on Johnston's art and the great number of magical mysteries revealed within these pages. Chris Mautner offered that the story was full of slightly awkward exposition but was ultimately winning because of its "educational glimpses into areas of history that have mostly been ignored by the general public."

An excerpt is available here from publisher GT Labs. A study guide and review links can be found here.

For teachers interested in teaching this book, there are a host of materials here from the Get Graphic website.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A.D. New Orleans: After the Deluge

The ensuing disaster that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina cast much light on life in the US. It questioned the reliability and judgment of FEMA and raised questions about continued class and racial disparity, culminating in what then-President George W. Bush called the "worst moment of his presidency," getting called out on national television by Kanye West. In all of this fallout and confusion, what seems to get lost are the stories of the people who lived in and through the storm. This graphic novel tells their stories.

A.D. New Orleans began as a webcomic but is here expanded and developed into a longer narrative. It begins on August 22, 2005, one week before Katrina hit, and focuses on five stories: Denise's family has lived in New Orleans for generations, and she and her family try to weather the storm in a hospital and then, when that becomes untenable, the Convention Center. Leo and Michelle are a Bohemian, urban couple who decide to take off to shelter but return quickly to survey the aftermath. Abbas is an Iranian-born businessman who decides to weather the storm with his fishing buddy Darnell so that they can protect his shop and also have a good story about experiencing a "real hurricane." Kwame is the son of a pastor whose family flees the storm but then returns to facilitate assistance to those in need. Finally, The Doctor stays in the French Quarter and throws a hurricane party, secure in the fact that this high point of the city will take little damage. He also takes an active part in helping people once the weather passes and the horrible damage caused by massive floods takes its toll.

This graphic novel portrays the destruction but mostly focuses on the human stories, showing what it was like to be there, trapped on a roof. Or what it was like to come back to find all your possessions ruined. Or what it was like to see your home be portrayed like some foreign battle site on the nightly news. It also shows what life was like for people who were trapped and who were neglected for days before help came. Finally, rumors about looting and roaming bands of thugs are also addressed. It is necessarily, but not gratuitously, graphic with its portrayal of stark conditions and people's language in extreme situations.

Josh Neufeld is a comics journalist who worked at the time as a Red Cross volunteer and was deployed to Biloxi, Mississippi to help hurricane victims there. That experience moved him to write this story from those most affected by the storm, so for this book he interviewed actual people and portrayed their accounts as accurately as he could. He specializes in non-fiction work and was along-time contributor to Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. His work has been recognized with a Xeric Foundation Grant for his travelogue A Few Perfect Hours, and he was also nominated for Harvey and Eisner Awards for this book.

Along with these nominations, A.D. New Orleans has received much praise. Wired Magazine's Todd Jatras called it "a sterling example of comics with a social consciousness." It has also received substantive write-ups in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. Reviewer Sean Kleefeld comments that the book is worth buying, even if the web version can be read for free.

Extended excerpts, chapters from the webcomic, discussion postings, related videos, reviews, and many other helpful and interesting links can be found on the book's official page.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Polly and the Pirates

Polly-Anne Pringle lived a sheltered life in a very proper boarding school. She strives to be as upright and respectable as her mother, a woman she believes to be the perfect lady. Her friends call her dull, but all of this changes when she is kidnapped by pirates and is brought out to sea. They are the former crew of the Pirate Queen Meg Malloy, and they think that Polly is her daughter and that she can lead them to her buried treasure. Polly tries to disabuse them of this notion and really, really wants to return to the safety of the boarding school, but she does show an uncanny aptitude for swashbuckling...

This charmer of a book was written and drawn by Ted Naifeh. He has created a number of graphic novels and comics series, including the Eisner Award nominated series Courtney Crumrin. Currently, he is writing a sequel to Polly and the Pirates as well as collaborating with Holly Black, author of the Spiderwick Chronicles and a bevy of other YA fantasy books, on the Good Neighbors trilogy. He talks about his career and works in this interview.

Reviews of this book have been very positive. Brian Cronin called it "delightful." Cindy Vallar commented that it is enjoyable to readers young and old. Reviewer Greg McElhatton very much enjoyed the art and wrote that "Polly’s a great addition to everyone’s library; she can set sail any time and I’ll be on board."

A 25-page preview is available here from Oni Press. A shorter preview for the yet unpublished sequel is available here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Rabbi's Cat

As a fable or a parable, this book begins with a basic yet significant premise: the Rabbi's cat has gained the amazing ability to speak. The problem? He only tells lies. In response to this awful behavior, the Rabbi forbids the cat to spend any time with his daughter, lest he fill her head with falsehoods and nonsense. This crushes the cat who seeks her approval and affection and so he asks the Rabbi to teach him the Talmud so that he can become a better creature. The theological implications of the cat's request boggle the Rabbi's mind, especially when he starts asking for a Bar Mitzvah. Dealing with this situation requires compromises by all parties involved, especially when a young rabbi comes courting the Rabbi's daughter.

The creator behind this Eisner Award winning graphic novel is Joann Sfar, a French artist with more than 100 books to his credit since 1994. Sfar has won many awards for his work in Europe and the US, and he is well known for his series of Sardine in Outer Space and various Little Vampire books. He has a pretty sardonic sense of humor, as seen in the English version of his homepage.

The story takes place in the 1930's in Algiers, while it was still under French control, and it is replete with complicated religious and philosophical matters. This particular volume encompasses a wide range of story, as it contains the first three volumes Sfar published in France (there are 5 total). This dense yet energetic work has received some very positive reactions. Reviewer Douglas Wolk praised the strength of Sfar's level of detail regarding personalities and life observations. The Comics Shrew wrote that the book is not traditionally pretty but that it "on the whole is quite lovely and highly recommended whatever the status of your beliefs." NPR's Laurel Maury called it "a rare book that makes talk of art, faith and humanity as exciting as a rollicking thriller."

This graphic novel has also been made into a soon-to-be-released motion picture.

A preview is provided here from the book's publisher Pantheon Graphic Novels.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Koko Be Good

What does it mean to be "good?" How does one know when they have "grown up?" These are two of the major concerns in this graphic novel. The majority of the plot centers on Jon, a 20-something who is drifting about after college. He has lost touch with his friends, set aside his aspirations as a musician, and is gearing up to join his girlfriend in Peru to live charitably. Koko, a tempestuous and energetic woman bursts onto the scene, causing havoc while striving to make her impression on the world. Accompanying her much of the time is Faron, an acrobatic Latino teenager who is troubled by his family situation and his secret love of musicals. All three of the characters are having a hard time figuring out their places in the world.

This beautifully illustrated graphic novel debut was created by Jen Wang. She graduated with a Sociology degree from SFSU and has worked various jobs before her graphic novel work. Koko Be Good started out in different form as an online comic, and Wang has a number of shorter works online. This interview sheds more light on her work and inspiration for this book.

Reviews have been largely positive. Kristin Fletcher-Spear was impressed by the art and the characterization, particularly of Faron. Greg McElhatton wrote that Wang has "taken her talent to a new level with this book." Comicsgirl commented on all the intricate details in the art and story that make the book work. It seems that Jen Wang's graphic novel career is off to a great start.

A preview, a reading group guide, and some reviews are available here from the book's publisher First Second. A video preview is available here from the author.

Thanks to Gina for the review copy!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Nice Review of Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean

Sean Kleefeld posted this well done review of Sarah Stewart Taylor and Ben Towle's book I wrote about earlier this year. Check it out!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Atalanta: The Race Against Destiny

This book tells a pretty exceptional Greek myth: girl is born and rejected by father who wanted a boy. She is left in the wilderness to die but is raised by a she-bear. Afterward, a family of hunters take her in and teach her to be human, but she is the fastest, strongest human ever. S0 she becomes a great hunter and goes to the Oracle at Delphi to hear her fortune. Warned of a disaster that would accompany marriage, she decides she does not need any man.

BUT, she is so beautiful that men throw themselves at her. So to give herself some peace she makes a contest where any man who beats her in a race gets to marry her, but anyone who loses is put to death. Not many men take her up on this opportunity, but still there is a fellow named Hippomenes, who has a plan and a few golden apples...

This rare example of a powerful, positive female in Greek mythology is retold in this entry from Lerner Publishing's Graphic Universe series. The story was done with an eye to historical detail in terms of the clothing and locales (no one who go on record to say if the gods and goddesses were portrayed accurately). It was written by Justine and Ron Fontes, a married couple who writes children's books and graphic novels. They have written a few other titles from this series and over 500 titles overall. The art was provided by Thomas Yeates, the artist of the Robin Hood entry in the series as well as a long-time comic artist who specializes in horror and fantasy tales.

It was difficult to find reviews for this book, but here is a rather short, glowing one from a younger reader on Amazon.com. I felt that this was one of the stronger books in the series, especially with the attempts to make Atalanta more personable and human than the cardboard characters usually found in such stories. Also, the academic resources included in the book make it ideal for classroom use.

A short preview and more information about the book and authors are available here from the Lerner Publishing Group.