Friday, December 30, 2011

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation

Published 10 years after the terrorist attacks that forever altered the US, The 9/11 Report graphic novel boils down the 800 page official report into a book 85% shorter. This graphic novel treats the events of 9/11 and their aftermath in a measured manner, not sensationalizing the violence nor boiling down the issues simplistically. It represents the key figures involved, both domestic and abroad, traces the history of various US agencies as well as the rise of Al Qaeda, and also depicts the steps and recommendations made to ensure such an attack never happens again.

This graphic novel is the product of Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, two veteran comics creators. Their first collaborations occurred during the 1960s at Harvey Comics where Jacobson was an editor and Colon was an aspiring comics artist. They worked on such characters as Casper the Friendly the Ghost and Richie Rich (whom Jacobson played some role in creating). Jacobson has also worked at Marvel Comics, and Colon has produced notable works at both DC and Marvel. Today the duo work on more serious, realistic graphic novels, such as graphic biographies of Vlad the Impaler and Che Guevara. They speak about their work on this graphic adaptation in this NPR interview.

Reviews for this graphic adaptation range widely. David Abrams called the book "gripping, informative and heartbreaking." On the back cover, no less an authority on comics than Stan Lee gushed, "I cannot recommend it too highly." Hilary Goldstein found the book had flaws but still concluded that either in its original or graphic novel form, this report was "essential reading for all Americans." Offering a negative view, Katherine Dacey found the interplay of images and words ineffective and the end product a "dense, confusing gloss on the Commission’s work that I found harder to read than the actual prose report."

The 9/11 Report graphic novel was published by Hill and Wang. They have various video and audio resources as well as a Teacher's Guide available here. The first chapter is excerpted by Slate Magazine here.

For those interested in the topic, Jacobson and Colon have also produced a sequel to this book, After 9/11.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy 89th Birthday, Stan Lee!

Face Front, True Believer!

Stan Lee is one of the most recognizable comics creators ever. His name is synonymous with Marvel Comics and he has been an iconic figure for 50 years, promoting comic books and himself in many venues.

The man who was born Stanley Lieber did not begin his comics career auspiciously. He was hired as an assistant at Timely Comics as a favor to his uncle. There, he did odd jobs and provided text pieces for comic books. Saving his real name for the novel he one day was going to write, he chose the pseudonym Stan Lee. He kept moving up in the field, writing back-up stories, main stories, editing and even becoming the art director. He wrote all kinds of stories for Atlas Comics (the company that followed Timely), romances, westerns, monsters, science fiction, depending on what the latest comic fad was. Finally, he felt like he was burned out and at the end of his rope, just churning out trite stories. When his wife told him to write some stories the way he wanted to, because he was going to soon quit any way, he followed her advice and started a sensation.

The first series he wrote in his manner was The Fantastic Four, co-created with Jack Kirby. A melange of superhero and monster comics, the FF featured characters that argued, had flaws, and behaved more humanly than the typical superhero of the day. The success of the series drove Lee to move in the same direction with other titles and soon enough some of the most recognized superheroes ever, such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and the Avengers, proliferated. The Marvel Age of comics had begun.

Marvel courted all types of fans, created fan clubs (F.O.O.M. and M.M.M.S.), and forged an identity (somewhat overblown) as a jocular and tightly knit group of creators. The company became a major player in the comics business, competing with and eventually overtaking long-time dominant force DC Comics. Lee was head writer, then editor-in-chief, then publisher, and then he decided to move out to the west coast to oversee and promote Marvel Comics properties being translated into different media. Lee's public persona was to be the ringleader/cheerleader of the company. All the while Marvel Comics still came out bearing the intro phrase "Stan Lee Proudly Presents."

This byline was controversial in part because of an ongoing dispute over how big a role Lee had in creating the Marvel characters. Lee has not been shy about claiming sole creatorship and has even been erroneously credited with creating Captain America, who was the product of Joe Simon and Kirby, though he quickly corrects those who make the error. Jack Kirby, and now his heirs, have long contended that he had as much or more of a role in creating some characters. For many years relations between the two former collaborators were frosty at best, with Kirby famously parodying Lee's bombastic personality as the villainous con-man Funky Flashman.

Today, Lee is an established ambassador of comic books. He still is associated with Marvel but also has side projects such as POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) and the now defunct Stan Lee Media. Additionally, he hosts the reality show Who Wants to Be a Superhero? and makes cameos in just about every Marvel Comics movie adaptation.

'Nuff Said!


Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

A real life crime story, The Green River Killer is an intimate account of a decades long effort to find and bring to justice a serial murderer in the Seattle, Washington area. The author Jeff Jensen's father was one of the lead detectives on the case so he has access to the inner workings of what went on. This graphic novel gives two accounts, one of Detective Tom Jensen, who at one point was the only person assigned to the case, and the other of Gary Leon Ridgway, a very troubled man who later admitted to killing at least fifty women between 1982 and 2003. This book is compelling and powerful though not lurid or overly graphic, despite its subject matter. It delves in to the interplay between the killer and detectives as they all search for answers for these brutal, senseless killings.

This graphic novel is a collaboration between Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case. Jensen is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly. Jensen wrote about his reasons and intentions for writing the book in this blog entry at Dark Horse. He speaks more about his working on the book with his father in this interview. Jonathan Case is an illustrator and member of the Periscope Studio based in Portland, Oregon. 2011 has been a big year for him, with the publication of this book as well as his well-received graphic novel debut Dear Creature. Case speaks about his process in creating this book here in this blog entry.

The Green River Killer has already received a good number of accolades, appearing on Amazon's, The New York Times', and USA Today's Best of 2011 lists. As could be expected, most reviews have been largely positive. Val Victory wrote that it was a "great read, and I highly recommend it for those who love detective stories and thrillers alike." Jeff Baker called the book "contemporary and timeless." Athira commented that it was "very thought-provoking and well-done," and continued, "It had the right amount of mystery, intrigue, and humanity added to the illustration."

A preview is available here from the book's publisher Dark Horse.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Superman: Red Son

Originally published as a 3 issue series under DC Comics' Elseworlds imprint, Red Son reimagines Superman, the defender of truth, justice, and the American way, as a hero of the Soviet Union. Instead of landing in the American Midwest, Superman's rocket lands in a communal farm in 1938 and he grows up to become a hero who fights for "Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact." Superman's presence and support for the eastern bloc countries radically changes history and the outcome of the Cold War. The US sees the great disparity in power and seeks balance by funding its greatest scientist Lex Luthor to combat the superhuman communist. In the course of this conflict, Lex creates versions of some of Superman's greatest foes, including Bizarro, Metallo, and the Parasite.

Red Son also casts different roles and personas for DC's classic characters, including Wonder Woman, who is an ally from Paradise Island who seeks to promote Superman's mission of a world-wide socialist state, and a Batman who emerges to overthrow the social order. Brainiac appears and attacks the Soviet Union only to be repurposed in an interesting way. Lois Lane still works for the Daily Planet and meets Superman, but only long after she has been married to Luthor. A few other characters are conspicuously missing but play a role in the eventual climax of the story.

This story was conceived and written by Mark Millar, a Scottish comic book writer who has left a big mark on modern comic books and movies. His The Ultimates series has shaped the tenor and tone of almost all the Marvel Comics movie adaptations of Avengers characters, and his work on The Authority and Civil War combined contemporary events and superhero stories. Additionally, he has done creator owned works such as Wanted and Kick Ass, which have been successful as movie adaptations. The art was rendered by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett.

Reviews of this graphic novel have been mostly positive. The Guardian's David Thomson called the book "a charming and potent work." The Daily Raider's reviewer Nixon wrote that "Red Son falls in the rare category of comics good enough that anyone should be able to pick up and enjoy." Nicholas Demers found some faults with Millar's storytelling but finally admitted that the book "was fun, occasionally clever, and had lots of nice visuals and cool fight scenes."

This collection is published by DC Comics. A preview is available at

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kill Shakespeare, Volume 1: A Sea of Troubles

This graphic novel is a creative mash-up of Shakespeare's plays that forms a fantastical and compelling narrative. The action begins at the point in The Tragedy of Hamlet when Prince Hamlet is exiled to England. A pirate attack and nautical accident leaves him washed up on the shores of England where he is taken in by Richard III. The English king is forming an alliance with MacBeth and Iago in order to find the sorcerer William Shakespeare and take his magical quill that defines reality, and Hamlet is prophesied to be the only one capable of tracking down the wizard. As the famously indecisive prince ponders whether or not to trust this monarch the situation is complicated by the appearance of another faction, made up of Juliet, Othello, and Falstaff.

References, quotations, puns, and characters from the bard's many works appear throughout this book, and it is clearly a labor of love from a trio of Shakespeare aficionados. Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery created the concept and write the series. Andy Belanger provides the art, which is energetic and expressive. More information about these creators can be found at the book's official site. This interview with the book's writers also sheds more light on the story's creation and direction.

All of the reviews I have read about the book have been full of praise. Fangoria's Jorge Solis concluded that this book is a "freshly original graphic novel" and "a highly enjoyable adventure." iFanboy's Ryan Haupt commented positively on the books deft combination of characterization, plot, and action. Mind Over Media called it a "fantastic little book" that "would make Shakespeare himself proud."

Kill Shakespeare began as a 12-issue limited series in 2010 and just reached completion. This collection contains the first half of the story. More information about the series, including previews and a trailer, is available here from the book's publisher IDW.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation

This graphic novel does three things extremely well: It explains the various parts of the US Constitution, places it in historical context, and also discusses ongoing contemporary controversies and issues. A wonderful tour through the British colonial period of the Thirteen Colonies foregrounds the path the US would take in founding its government until the present day, and the book's creators obviously have a love for depicting and explaining diverse periods of American history. They highlight key figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and James Madison as well as shed light on pivotal incidents such as Shay's Rebellion, the Missouri Compromise, and the Civil War. Additionally, they explicate each amendment and provide concrete examples and scenarios as well. Most impressively, they cover a wide swath of government and history while providing several sides to contentious topics.

Writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Aaron McConnell collaborated to make a lively narrative that is chock full of facts and never boring. Hennessey is a veteran in film and television production, and McConnell is a member of Periscope Studio. He has worked on other nonfiction graphic novels including Forward 54th!.

The reviews I have seen for this book have been mostly positive. John Seven gushed that "the adaptation is a perfect way for kids to view the Constitution as a living document by showing it alive — and it’s not bad for reminding us older folks of the exact same thing." Charles Moss wrote, "The writing and illustrations are simple yet effective in bringing understanding to some of the most misunderstood U.S. laws." Educator Pete Hammer finds much good in the book advises readers to check out "this graphic presentation that explains the Constitution in modern English."

A trailer, preview, study guide and more resources are available here from the book's publisher Hill and Wang.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chicken with Plums

Chicken and Plums (Poulet aux Prunes, in French) chronicles the last eight days of Nasser Ali Khan, a masterful musician who loses the will to live when his choice tar, a musical instrument, is broken. Unable to find a suitable replacement, all music becomes sour to him. He falls into a depression and will not leave his room or eat. His family tries to intercede on his behalf, but he responds very differently to them than they'd like. Even though the main character is extremely egotistical, this tale is quite magical and evocative at times, almost like a fairy tale. Over the course of this book Satrapi interweaves dream-like sequences, flashbacks, and other stories quite expertly. I was very much affected by the narrative.

This is the fourth graphic novel published in the US from Marjane Satrapi. She is a graphic novelist and movie maker who is famous for her autobiographical works and also ones that focus on her family. This work focuses on her great-uncle, whom she learned about from old photographs. She talks about the making this book and its recently released movie version in this interview.

As with Satrapi's other works, the reviews of this graphic novel have been very positive. Danica Davidson wrote, "In a mere 84 pages, Satrapi gives something heartfelt and unique that can keep a reader thinking about it long after turning its last page." Carol Siegfried called the book "very powerful" and noted that "the stark black and white images are very evocative, despite their simplicity." Leroy Douresseaux gushed that "Satrapi’s ability to both engage us with the familiar and enthrall us with something different is the mark of an exceptional, special comic book storyteller."

Chicken with Plums is published in the US by Pantheon. A sizable preview is available from The Virginia Quarterly Review.