Monday, January 30, 2012

Holy Terror

Originally pitched as Batman versus al Qaeda, Holy Terror is Frank Miller's response to the 9/11 attacks and the resulting conflicts since. It references events such as the World Trade Center bombings and the beheading of Daniel Pearl, and it caricatures major political figures. These depictions highlight a range of feelings about the situation, from denial to outrage to sheer horror to, most distressingly, a thirst for revenge. Miller makes disturbing moves, depicting the Arabs in the story as relics of the Middle Ages and questioning if they are even human because of their actions. I was disgusted by the cavalier racism and ethnic stereotyping.

Because he balked at having Batman involved in such an adventure, Miller transformed the main character into a generic superhero named The Fixer. He also had to shift his fighting partner from Catwoman to a slinky cat burglar named Natalie Stack. The story begins with The Fixer chasing Stack after a heist, as part of a frenetic and rough mating ritual. After their daliance is disturbed by a series of escalating bombings, the duo set out to stop the terrorists from obliterating Empire City.

Placing superheroes into world events is nothing new. Captain America #1 famously showed Cap punching Hitler out, and Superman and others advertised for war bonds all throughout World War II. The Punisher was originally a Vietnam War veteran who was disillusioned with the US justice system. However, it is easy to see why DC would not have published this story with Batman in it. In the space of one night, the Fixer tortures a captive terrorist for information, shoots dozens of generic Arab terrorists, and detonates a weapon of mass destruction beneath Empire City. He behaves in thoughtless, vengeful, ultra-macho fashion. He does and takes whatever he wants, from sex with a cat burglar to bloody vengeance on the nameless terrorist fodder who fall in his path. Instead of a hero, The Fixer seems like a hyper-steroid version of the Abu Ghraib prison guards.

The book ends with an echo from his classic The Dark Knight Returns, focusing on the police commissioner. Only instead of a happy ending where he needlessly worries about his family who are ultimately safe, this time he experiences the real terror that comes from the vacuum left by their deaths. This possibly poignant scene seems forced after so many pages of mindless, macho violence. If this graphic novel is to be called successful in any way, it seems to be in capturing the maelstrom of sensations and emotions that terrorism evokes as well as the seeming futility in determining a feasible course of action.

It is difficult to believe that Miller would downplay the sacrifice of so many soldiers and civilians in the wake of 9/11, not to mention that long, hard hours actual people have worked to respond to countless conflicts, to elevate the insanely unrealistic actions of a superhero. Perhaps this book is a commentary on the ultimate inability for superhero narratives to deal with such serious and complex issues, but Miller seems to relish the action, sex, and violence too much for me to credit him that intention. He speaks about his intentions with this comic in this interview.

In terms of art, the book progresses from some dynamic and detailed layouts to increasingly sketchy and rushed artwork. It appears that Miller sacrificed the rendering to get the book finished, which seems strange for a book the publishers claim was "ten years in the making."

Most reviews I have seen are mixed at best, but some call the book terrible. David Brothers found much to dismay him in this graphic novel, summing up that Miller is "punching far below his weight class." Ryan K. Lindsay wrote that he found some parts stunning and that the book works well as a piece of propaganda but not always as a comic. Sean Kleefeld wrote that the book is full of what Miller does well "but none of it of any real substance." Johnny Destructo called it "Sloppy, arrogant work by an arrogant bastard." J. Caleb Mozzocco summed up his take on the book, "It’s beautiful artwork, in service of an ugly story and uglier still politics. I guess that’s what happens when a genius cartoonist gets terrorized, and puts pen to paper while still in a state of fear." In contrast to many of these reviews, Bob Temuka wrote about liking the art, the visceral thrills of the book, and its potential therapeutic value for Miller at least.

Holy Terror was published by Legendary Entertainment, which is owned by Warner Brothers, also the owners of DC Comics. They provide a video trailer here.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Happy 55th Birthday, Frank Miller!

Frank Miller has become a lightning rod lately because of his incendiary comments about the Occupy Movement in the US, and he is probably best known now for his comics works turned blockbuster movies Sin City and 300.

Miller has been closely related to two large comics properties, Daredevil and Batman, and his work on both characters has been seen widely as being definitive and noteworthy. He created and introduced the character Elektra into Daredevil's stories and wrote crime drama type stories that reinvigorated the series into one of Marvel's top titles. Two collaborations with artist David Mazzucchelli, Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, are considered modern classics and are perennial bestsellers.

His comics work is also notable because he was one of the first mainstream American artists to draw on Japanese influences in his work, from the martial arts and ninja stories in Daredevil to the manga style of his limited series Ronin, a dystopian future story about a reincarnated samurai warrior. Another of his miniseries for DC, The Dark Knight Returns, chronicles the adventures of an older, broken down Batman and was pivotal in a movement towards more realistic and grim American superhero comics.

Miller parlayed his comics work to Hollywood, where he worked on movies such as the sequels Robocop 2 and 3. After disillusionment with these films, Miller returned to comics working on creator-owned properties such as Give Me Liberty, another dystopian future series starring Martha Washington, the noir influenced Sin City, and the epic 300 that adapted the story of the Spartans' stand at Thermopylae. Most recently, he published Holy Terror, a controversial and bombastic Batmanesque superhero story where the protagonist goes up against Al Qaeda.

In recent years, Miller was lured back to Hollywood where he co-directed the adaptation of his Sin City stories and also had great input on the 300 movie. Both films lean heavily on Miller's artistic style and are very closely linked visually to the comics. Miller went on to write and direct an adaptation of the classic Will Eisner character The Spirit, but that movie was not very well received. Currently he is is working on a Sin City sequel.

A multiple Eisner, Kirby, and Harvey Award winning creator, Frank Miller's influence on American comics has been great. Furthermore, his current work continues to entertain and rankle many readers and viewers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Silence of Our Friends

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

These words from the late Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are used in the title of this gripping graphic novel. It is a memoir set in 1967 in Houston, Texas during a contentious time. Author Mark Long lived in a white suburb at the time, and his father was a news reporter for a local television station who endeavored to cover heated, often violent civil rights protests. During one such protest a policeman is shot and killed and 5 seemingly innocent black college students are arrested and tried with murder.

Racist thought was prevalent everywhere at the time, it seems, in suburban and urban neighborhoods as well as in the TV station management. They show that everyone, regardless of what side of town they live in, deals with racist thoughts and seems afraid, suspicious, and ready to react. Mark's father tries to extend a hand of friendship to a local black writer/professor, but easy answers and solutions do not follow.

This graphic novel is a collaboration between Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and artist Nate Powell. Long is a video game designer and author who is known for his work for Zombie Studios and the Shrapnel series of graphic novels. Demonakos speaks about his work in this interview, and he is the Convention Director of Seattle's Emerald City Comicon, founder of The Comic Stop retail chain, and songwriting half of the nerd rock band Kirby Krackle. Nate Powell is an Eisner Award winning artist and writer whose Swallow Me Whole won Best New Graphic Novel in 2009.

Thus far, this book has been very well reviewed. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and wrote, "This graphic novel presents an engrossing narrative about race in America, while honestly dealing with a host of other real-world issues, including familial relationships, friendship, dependency, “other”-ness, and perhaps most importantly, the search for common ground." Librarian Jen Bigheart commented on Powell's excellent, evocative artwork and wrote that after reading the book she "was a little blown away for a few minutes."

There are multiple previews of this book available online. One is from Publishers Weekly. Another is at the book's official website. The book's publisher First Second provides another here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for 2012

Click this link to see the 56 titles from 78 official nominations that the American Library Association has suggested for readers age 12-18. Impressively, they have included a broad range of titles from many genres.

Among the titles recognized are ones reviewed on this blog: Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory, Feynman, Zahra’s Paradise, Anya’s Ghost, Thor: The Mighty Avenger Volume 1, Americus, and Morning Glories Volume 1.

There is a separate link to the Young Adult Library Services Association annual Top 10 list.

Congratulations to all whose works were included!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Merchant of Venice

One of William Shakespeare's better known "comedies," The Merchant of Venice follows storylines involving romance, commerce, and racial discrimination. Antonio is the merchant from the title and he borrows money from the Jew Shylock, a stock villain portrayed in an Antisemitic manner. Antonio lends some of the money to his friend Bassanio who wants to marry the rich, beautiful, and clever Portia. In the interim, Shylock's daughter Jessica elopes with a Christian. When news of shipwrecks seem to threaten Antonio's fortune, the persecuted and wronged Shylock seeks to take his debt from Antonio in the form of a pound of flesh. The play's resolution plays out in typical Shakespearean fashion, through cross-dressing, a trial, and a few major speeches.

This adaptation was done by Gareth Hinds, who has a number of other beautiful adaptations under his belt, including Beowulf, King Lear, and The Odyssey. He chose to set this story in a more modern Venice and included a handy key for the characters up front to help readers out. He modernized the language a bit, though not on the major speeches, and he did a great job of not playing up to stereotypical depictions for theatrical effect. This adaptation retains a lot of ambiguity about personal relations and social dynamics to spark good discussion and inspire thought.

Nominated by YALSA as a Great Graphic Novel for Teens in 2009, this book has been praised widely. Kirkus Reviews called it "a captivating, smartly executed work." The Graphic Classroom's Michael Schofield wrote that Hinds' "attention to the original work and his artistry is just top notch." Publishers Weekly concluded that it was "an intriguing adaptation." From a slightly contrary position, Ladyrhian wished more of the original language appeared in the early portions of the book but still recommended it.

This graphic adaptation was first published by Candlewick Press. A preview is available from Random House. A few more preview pages are available here from Hinds' website.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography

J. Edgar Hoover was one of the largest public figures in the United States during the 20th century. The founding director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover was responsible for growing the FBI from a small, largely ineffective group to a monolithic organization with advanced crime-fighting methods, one of the strongest governmental agencies there is. This graphic biography traces his life from childhood, through his days fighting gangsters and organized crime, busting communist activities, and engaging in wire-tapping and other questionable surveillance techniques on notable public figures, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The portrait Geary paints here of Hoover is an intricate one, full of nuance and ambiguity. This was a fascinating read about a complex and controversial man.

This graphic biography was written and drawn by Rick Geary, a prolific, well regarded, and veteran comics artist who has produced numerous graphic novels, including a series about Victorian era murders. He received the 1980 Inkpot Award from the San Diego Comic Convention and the 1994 Book and Magazine Illustration Award from the National Cartoonists Society. Although he lacks the level of fame some other graphic novelists enjoy, he is considered a master by his peers. Geary provides a level of historical and artistic accuracy that sets him apart from the pack.

Reviews of this work, which is a counterpart in many ways to Geary's Trotsky biography, have been largely positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "as solid, thrilling and informative a guide to the life of the America’s most powerful authoritarian as one could ask for." John Seven wrote that with this book "Geary has been given another opportunity to shine doing what he does best," namely exposing the abuses perpetrated by overly powerful authorities. Andrew Wheeler was impressed by the art and how well the story was meshed with facts, stating that he "can’t think of any other cartoonist who could have done as good a job with this material."

A truncated preview is available here from the book's publisher Hill & Wang.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr's life, discoveries, and the century he shaped

One of the most influential and important scientists of the 20th century, Niels Bohr won the 1922 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on determining the structure of atoms and went on to lay out important ideas in the conception of quantum mechanics. His model of electron orbits, although not technically correct, still is used to teach elementary chemistry and physics. This graphic biography follows Neils over his life, from his days as a fumbling doctoral student to his career as a professor and mentor to some of the most important scientists of the day. Many of the scientists who went his institute won Nobel Prizes of their own.

Also, this book details the harrowing days when he was held under house arrest by Nazis and eventually escaped to the US where he worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. It also follows his many efforts to redirect the course of political action regarding the development of nuclear weapons. In the course of this book some of his most important theories and discoveries are illustrated and explained. His influence is still felt in the field of physics, and his name lives on via the prestigious Neils Bohr Institute in his native Denmark.

Suspended in Language is the product of Jim Ottaviani, Leland Purvis, and a host of other contributors. Ottaviani is a librarian and ex-nuclear engineer who has written a shelf-full of science themed graphic novels. Purvis is an artist known for his work on various webcomics and the Resistance series of graphic novels published by First Second. The other artists illustrate a number of back-matter comics that shed further light on Bohr's life and work.

This graphic biography has been generally well received, even by non-physicists. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that she appreciated the "playful tone" of the book and also that "one can’t read this book without being affected." Rick the Internet Librarian commented that although this book is not an easy read it is "a good introduction to a major twentieth century scientist and the world he helped create." Time Magazine's Andrew Arnold called the book both "educational and entertaining."

A preview and more information are available here from the book's publisher G.T. Labs.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Trotsky: A Graphic Biography

Before he famously died at the hands of an icepick-wielding assassin, Leon Trotsky became synonymous with communism,the rise of the Soviet Union, and the escalation of the Cold War. This graphic biography details his work as a propagandist, writer, revolutionary, and leader of the Red Army. It also chronicles Trotsky's often rocky relationship with Lenin and the long and bumpy road that led to the establishment and government of the Soviet Union. In the end, his presence offended and threatened Stalin, leading to his doom.

Trotsky is the creation of Rick Geary, a prolific, well regarded, and long working comics artist who has produced a good number of historical graphic novels, including a number of books about Victorian era murders. Considered a master by his peers, he received the 1980 Inkpot Award from the San Diego Comic Convention and the 1994 Book and Magazine Illustration Award from the National Cartoonists Society. Geary provides a level of historical and artistic accuracy that sets him apart from other graphic novelists.

Unlike the contentious figure Trotsky cut, most reviewers agree on the worth of this graphic biography. In the course of a longer review of literature on Trotsky, the International Socialist Review's Paul Le Blanc called this book "simple, slender, remarkable." Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow commented that although it cannot cover everything and it suffers from a lack of Trotsky's own writing, this book does his story and thinking "great justice." John Hogan wrote that it "works wonderfully" as an introduction to Trotsky, adding that Geary "stays mostly impartial, presenting just the facts of Trotsky’s life along with his layered artwork." The Comics Journal's Marc Sobel was more critical, noting that those looking for a quick read or great artwork would be well served, "but for readers interested in delving deeper and getting to know what kind of man Trotsky was, this graphic biography has little to offer."

Trotsky was published by Hill and Wang. I could not locate any excerpt online, but there are a couple of representative panels from the book in this review by Elizabeth Hewitt.