Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Canterbury Tales

Seymour Chwast has had a long and distinguished career in art. In 1954 he co-founded the famous and influential Push Pin Studios with the all star artist team of Milton Glaser, Edward Sorel, and Reynold Ruffins. He has won numerous honors over his career, including the Augustus Saint Gaudens Award from The Cooper Union School of Art, a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and an Honorary Doctorate from Parsons School of Design. He was inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame in 1983. He has art pieces in many major museums, and in 2010, he published his first graphic novel, an adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

In his second graphic novel, The Canterbury Tales, Chwast transforms Geoffrey Chaucer's religious pilgrims into a cadre of motorcycle riders while retaining the medieval flavor of their dress and affects. After a quick prologue and delineation of the characters and history of the book, he shares this classic collection of tales adapted into more modern words and pictures. The tales range in tenor from the blandly heroic Knight's Tale to the bawdy Miller's Tale to the ribald Wife of Bath's Tale the drily moral Parson's Tale.

Chaucer's work is a problematic one to many teachers and readers. The Middle English he used is nigh impenetrable for many high school students, more Scandinavian than Modern English. Also, the subject matter of each tale ranges far across a spectrum of taste and decorum, simultaneously depicting and commenting on class standing and humanity. Chwast condenses the complexity of each tale into a short space with an economy of text and illustration. Each tale reads simultaneously as a distillation and a modern translation. I did not get much out of this effect in this book, because without the language almost every tale devolved into a collection of fart or cuckold jokes with a moral tacked on.

Reviews of book have been mostly positive, though they tend to focus on how much the book translates the language of Chaucer into a modern vernacular, which leaves some of the original's flavor behind. Bill Baker praised it as "a spare and sparsely illustrated masterwork, one that’s as enjoyable, engrossing and richly imagined as the book upon which it is based." In a tempered critique, Kirkus Reviews wrote that it was  "not quite the achievement that the Divine Comedy was, but a work that finds an artistic common denominator for Chaucer and Chwast." Publishers Weekly noted "Chwast's more bombastic approach creates an amusing surface, but doesn't really try to translate the substance of the original." Mallory Gevaert does note that despite all the flatulence and beheadings in the book, still "the whole novel feels downright classy due to Chwast’s clean art and organized storytelling."

This adaptation is published by Bloomsbury. Some preview images are available here as part of an informative interview with Bill Baker about the book.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Ten years before the famed Battle of Thermopylea, the Greeks scored a landmark and pivotal victory against the Persians at Marathon. This book details the life of one of that battle's key figures, here called Eucles, who delivered messages to gather forces and gain allies the only way available back then, by running. (By the way, there are multiple accounts of this story, and the hero's name varies according to the source. He is alternately known as Pheidippides or Thersipus of Erchius). We learn of his early life as a slave, see him earn his citizenship, and wince when he loses his family as part of a hard lesson learned. His role is key, because the Athenians need the assistance of the Spartans, and his task becomes personal when some childhood grudges come to the fore.

Almost as much as it is about Eucles, this is also a book about military strategy. Vastly outnumbered by the Persian forces, who are being marshaled by Hippias, the ex-tyrant of Athens who was ousted by Spartan forces, the Athenians rely on the strategy of Militiades to turn back their foes. The military chess match is a large part of the first half of this book, and my one major negative criticism is that it was difficult to keep straight the separate characters in the early going of the story when scenes cut back and forth. For more historical background about the battle strategies check out these sites.

Marathon is a collaboration between writer Boaz Yakin and artist Joe Infurnari. Yakin is best known as a screenwriter and director. He has written multiple screenplays, including the 1989 movie The Punisher and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. He has also directed films such as Fresh and Remember the Titans. Infurnari is an Eisner Award-nominated artist who is best known for the graphic novel, Mush! Sled Dogs with Issues. His sketchy art style suits the grittiness of this time period well. I also though his action sequences were appropriately frenzied, capturing the bewildering, brutal aspects of Bronze Age combat. He talks more about his life and career in this interview. Infurnari also has a cache of comics online at act-i-vate.

This graphic history has been well received. It was selected a UT School of Information Science Book of the Week, and it has been well reviewed. Kirkus Reviews gave it a coveted starred review. Kris Bather wrote that it is "dramatic, engrossing, really does 'make history come alive.'" A more measured review from Publishers Weekly remarked on how the beginning of the book was somewhat hard to follow but continued, "As the book progresses, and Eucles takes center stage, the book rights itself, and by the end, it is easy to feel oneself racing alongside him toward Athens"

A preview is available here from the book's publisher First Second

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Freshman: Tales of 9th Grade Obsessions, Revelations, and Other Nonsense

Like most freshmen, Annie is nervous about the beginning of her first year in high school. Her older, geeky brother has gotten it into her head that this year will define the rest of her life, so she is worried she will make bad choices.

And she has to make lots of choices to deal with shifting circumstances. Her old friend Beth has become distant, almost surly, and is avoiding her. She has to come to terms that she is not a very good field hockey player. She makes friends with Katrina, who is a great field hockey player, and her brother Luke, whom she thinks is just dreamy. Seeking an alternative to sports, she goes on to score a part in the school play and then has to deal with cast drama as well as a conniving rival. And these are just some of the things Annie tackles over the course of the school year.

The premise of Freshman: Tales of 9th Grade Obsessions, Revelations, and Other Nonsense may seem familiar to many. But the execution of this graphic novel makes this possibly cliched tale into a vivid look at adolescent life. All in all, I felt that these were very realistic and relatable scenarios that made me think of my own time in high school without cloying, nostalgic overtones. I appreciated the episodic qualities of the story, and I liked how it was divided up according to the seasons. It gave the sense of gradual progression, letting the characters develop over the course of the book. As we get to know them, they take lives of their own, and their individual personalities become more realized.

This graphic novel was created by Corinne Mucha, whose work I have to admit has been a recent obsession of mine. Her comic book The Monkey in the Basement and Other Delusions made me laugh out loud so much I visited her site and bought everything she had for sale, including this book. Her work is largely autobiographical, with her unique focus on specific episodes and social situations. I think her observations and admitted hangups are simultaneously hilarious, insightful, and provocative. Her comics are the best kind of comedy, the kind that is both funny and thoughtful.

Reviews I have seen of this book have been very positive and receptive. Snow Wildsmith at the School Library Journal praised, "Mucha brings to life the pain and the joy of freshman year. She writes with an immediacy that doesn’t feel like an adult reminiscing about her teen years." Jennifer de Guzman wrote, "What is refreshing about Mucha’s work is that it captures all the charm of a John Hughes film without what have become teen movie cliches... Mucha depicts adolescent life for what it is: baffling, messy, and, at times, unexpectedly awesome." Ricki Marking-Camuto summed the book up as "fresh, fun, and totally realistic."

This graphic novel is published by Zest Books, a publisher focusing on adolescent nonfiction and that seems to pay careful attention to their Teen Advisory Board. There is a preview of the book at

Friday, June 15, 2012

Fangbone! Third-Grade Barbarian, Volume 1

I was slightly surprised to find this book on the magazine shelf of a supermarket in New Windsor, New York, so I snapped it up to see what it was about. It turns out that this is the first book in a series - the second book is already out and a third is on the way. The premise here is that Skullbania, a land of barbarians, is under attack by the vile villain, Venomous Drool. In order to protect themselves from his armies of ghouls they have to send a volunteer away with the magical artifact Drool needs to rule the world. The young and brave Fangbone volunteers and is transported across dimensions to our world, where he must blend in as best he can. Of course, he ends up enrolled in an elementary school, and Homeroom 3G will never be the same again...

Michael Rex created, wrote and drew this graphic novel aimed at 2nd and 3rd graders. He is best known for his humorous children's books, including the parodies Goodnight Goon, Furious George Goes Bananas, and The Runaway Mummy. Rex elaborates more about his life and work in this interview.

Fangbone! does resemble other children books, notably the Captain Underpants series, with its sense of humor. So it is somewhat juvenile and gross. Tanya at had much praise for the book and its sequel in her spoiler-filled and enthusiastic reviewElizabeth Bird praised the humor and references in the book, describing it as "a story where a stranger comes to town bearing a toe (not his own) and brings together a ragtag group of misfits. It’s like Shane meets The Bad News Bears with some hound-snakes and dirt devils thrown in for spice."  Kirkus Reviews had a different take on the book and harshly commented that "this series opener offers little novelty" but that it "may hold some appeal for young boys seeking hijinks over highbrow literature."

When I cracked this book, I did not expect to be as entertained as I was. The way that Fangbone and the students in 3G (the "special" class) get along is hilarious, realistic enough, and quite fun. The ways that they teach him about our world and he teaches them about being brave and sticking up for themselves are a little bit of a cliche, but I did not care so much because they were so well pitched. Regular readers and my friends can gauge just how juvenile I am, but I thought this book was enjoyable on many fronts.

 Fangbone! Third-Grade Barbarian is published by Penguin Juvenile. The author provides a video preview of the book here on his blog.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Ryoko Kiyama leads an ordinary life, as far as manga characters go. He has a girlfriend who has a magic mirror that allows her to change shape. He fights demons wearing a mecha suit. One day, a tear in reality sucks him into a strange new dimension. Ours. Life here is difficult. His manga proportions and appearance make people uneasy. He leaves speed lines in his wake for others to have to clean up. All his thoughts and emotions are clear to any passerby. As he tries his best to bide his time and fit in, he falls in love with Marissa Montaigne. When the two begin to spend time together her parents and jealous ex-boyfriend definitely do not approve.

This type of story has been around for a long time, embodied in works like Romeo and Juliet and Footloose, but this book's attention to the conventions of manga and American graphic novels makes it a unique take. The fact that beings from two different universes are drawn together and try to understand each other makes for a compelling and endearing story. Additionally, the use of manga features has the effect of a partial lampoon/partial homage that some fans will appreciate and enjoy. The mix of genre styles for the most part worked, resulting in moments of genuine joy, humor, suspense, and concern.

Mangaman is a collaboration between writer Barry Lyga and artist Colleen Doran. Lyga is a long time comics fan who is best known as a YA author. His well-received novels, including The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, the CYBIL Award winning Boy Toy, and Hero Type, explore social and moral issues in high schools. The award winning Doran is best known for her long-running graphic novel series A Distant Soil, which she has been working on since the 1980s. She has also had major collaborations on characters such as Sandman and Wonder Woman. In recent years, she has taken to lecturing about manga, and she posts her artwork here.

Reviews of Mangaman have been very positive. At the Graphic Novel Reporter Collin David wrote, "Heavily experimental in both concept and execution, and very conscious of the differences between manga and American comics, it manages to embrace both audiences." Kirkus Reviews gave it one of their coveted starred reviews, summing the book up as "an inventive offering, sure to please fans of both American and Japanese comics." The Stumptown Trade Review praised the book as "fresh, different, and full of the kind of visuals that cannot be replicated in any other medium."

It should also be stated that this is a book aimed at teens, and it features issues that many teens deal with. There is a party with alcoholic beverages, though the consequences (e.g. vomiting) are also depicted. There is also one scene with heavy petting that results in some pixelated boy parts (a common manga convention).

Sample chapters, links, and more are available at the book's official page. Mangaman was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Finder: Voice

Regardless of the reasons why, science fiction of late has had its share of dystopian future stories (also check out this graphic). This entry in the genre is from the Eisner Award Winning series Finder. The series takes place in Anvard, a domed city where a complex clan structure exists. Citizens strive to belong to clans, because such membership brings social status and also a measure of security. Being a "cull" makes life much more difficult and uncertain. This stand-alone volume follows Rachel Grosvenor, a young woman who was born to parents of different clans. Her drive to belong to the Llaverac clan, which is devoted to physical beauty and all the members are virtually indistinguishable, becomes derailed when a family heirloom is lost. In desperation, she turns for help from a Finder named Jaeger. The problem is complicated further by the fact that Finders can never reveal where they are located.

Voice is the product of Carla Speed McNeil,a Lulu, Ignatz, and Eisner Award winning cartoonist. She has been publishing Finder comics since 1996 and began the webcomic version in 2005. She has also illustrated a few other series, such as a run on Queen & Country, and is editor-in-chief of Saucy Goose Press. She speaks about her work and career in this interview with Washington City Paper.

Voice has won the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Graphic Novel category and has been generally well received. Yogikai praised the book, "This is an amazing volume and really makes me want to read the entire series." The Comics Journal's Shaenon Garrity wrote that this book is one of those that builds such a personal connection that causes the reader to think "this comic was made just for me." Steve Bennett added, "Once again McNeil immerses you in her meticulously detailed world and you’re immediately caught up in a beautifully drawn and deftly written story."

It should be stated that although this volume is only a small part of a larger series, it is a great stand-alone story. I had no familiarity with the series, and I was not lost at all. McNeil even provides voluminous footnotes in the end of the book to dispel any confusions new readers may have. Additionally, knowing there are other volumes to peruse will be attractive to those who enjoy the book. Lastly, I should also say there is some course language and slight nudity, so this is a book probably more suited to more mature readers.

The book's publisher Dark Horse provides a preview here.

More information about the stories, characters, and world of Finder comics can be found at this website.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ways to prevent summer brain drain!

The Knoxville News Sentinel published a helpful article for parents and educators about what students can do to stay sharp over the summer break. Yours truly makes an appearance and suggests a few graphic novel options for readers.

Check it out!