Monday, July 30, 2018

Voces Sin Fronteras: Our Stories, Our Truth

Issues about immigration and its impact on families have been prominent in the current US political scene, with a gross amount of injustice and racism cast toward many people seeking asylum. This book is an excellent entry into this political conversation, with sixteen true accounts from the lives of young people who have come over from Latin American countries to live and find a better life in the United States. These adolescents are the Latino Youth Leadership Council of the Washington DC-based Latin American Youth Center, founded in 1968.

Although the authors here might not be the most adept cartoonists, they share their stories well. The sixteen tales in this book are powerful, showing great personal sacrifices, determination, and the drive to succeed. They show the lengths some families go through to find better lives, including many hardships, poverty, and absences that cause grief and pain. And given all of the obstacles they face, I was struck reading this book by just how positive these young leaders are. In times of great adversity, they strive to find light and hope.

One feature that many of these stories contain is a struggle learning English or getting by in new contexts. The tales honor both languages via a bilingual presentation, so a reader can read in either English or Spanish. Also accompanying each comic narrative is a two page text piece explaining more about the author and why they chose to focus on the story they told. This book is an excellent resource for exploring immigrant narratives and also personal journaling.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but the ones I found were very positive. Children's Book Council called it a "timely, ambitious, and a much-needed addition to current national discussions about who we are as a country." Emilio Solórzano was impressed with the reality of the stories and gave it "a perfect 5 out of 5." Frederick Luis Aldama wrote that the stories "stand as powerful testaments to the resilient power of today’s Latinx youth to grow, create, and transform in spite of it all."

Voces Sin Fronteras was published by Shout Mouse Press, and they offer more information about the book here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Monkey Chef: A Love Story

I first became aware of this book from a Kickstarter campaign for Kilgore Books and Comics, where I did pitch in to buy a bunch of issues of Noah Van Sciver's Blammo. The title and concept were intriguing, but I was short on funds for getting other books. I was happily surprised when I saw the book and author at HeroesCon this summer tabling right next to my pal Patrick Dean. I bought the book, read it that weekend, and told Mike Freiheit in really awkward ways that (spoiler) I enjoyed it.

Monkey Chef is an autobiographical tale about a man who is looking for ways to escape a dead-end job and also figure out life and love. When the book opens he is in a job he does not really care for, and he's also struggling to date women. Ironically, he meets a really wonderful woman right before he commits to go to South Africa for a year to work at a primate sanctuary. Still, he goes and during that year he learns a lot about himself.

His primary job at the sanctuary is to prepare food for the various monkeys as well as for his fellow co-workers. Over time he really gets to know the monkeys' behaviors and develops some favorites. He also makes lots of observations about how primate behavior relates to what humans do, too. All of these observations come into play when Mike struggles with maintaining a long-distance relationship, dealing with the various travelers who cycle in and out, and just figuring out what it means to be masculine in today's society. I very much appreciated his candor and introspection throughout this book. I also liked how he also inserted humor into all of his ruminations, like you can see in the excerpt below.
In the end, I felt that this was a compelling and thoughtful graphic novel, well rendered in terms of art and story. I loved the overall atmosphere of the narrative, which is conveyed with the muted, cool colors throughout. I also found much to relate to in terms of my own growing up and figuring out the various relationships in my life. I am sorry that I did not get this book sooner, but I am very glad that I got to get it directly from the author, who was also gracious enough to sign my copy.

Mike Freiheit originally published Monkey Chef as a series of mini-comics. In addition to making comics, he helps organize The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) and teaches at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He speaks more about his work on Monkey Chef in this interview.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book online, but Rob Clough wrote about two of the original mini-comics for The Comics Journal. He wrote that he very much appreciated how the story was told, not so much in straight-forward, chronological fashion, but "Freiheit's approach is a more artful one, juxtaposing different events against each other in interesting ways."

Monkey Chef was published by Kilgore Books & Comics, and you can see more about it here. There is also a sizable excerpt of it available here from The Comics Journal.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Greatest of Marlys!

In the annals of comic strips, Peanuts is often lauded as perhaps the best overall but also the best at depicting the complex relationships and emotions of children. I have much respect for that comic and its creator Charles Schulz, but I feel that the comic strip that populates this collection, Ernie Pook's Comeek, packs just as powerful an emotional wallop. That strip was more of an underground/independent newspaper publication, and it is certainly less well known to the general public, but I am glad for this recent re-issued collection as it brings back into currency one of the best comics I have ever read.

Each four-panel comic is packed with text and drawings, casting a light on mundane yet monumental moments in the life of Marlys, a smart but unpopular pre-teen. She has to deal with capricious parenting, casual ugliness from peers, and friction with her siblings, pretty typical stuff really. But the ways that Lynda Barry portrays and communicates them make them instantly relatable and also wrenching. Also, although much of this book trucks in reality and some tough situations, it also does so with a lot of heart and a great sense of wit and humor.
This book is full of hundreds of tiny masterpieces, all of which add to one grand tapestry of a young girl's life. And what's more, the large format of the book and pages feature the strips beautifully. It is a masterful collection, and I urge you to pick it up and read it. This book is simply fantastic.
The aforementioned author of this book, Lynda Barry, has had a long and varied career in the arts. Besides being an accomplished cartoonist and comics artist, she has written novels, created books on art and imagination that defy genre definitions, and taught on the collegiate level. For those interested in her work, there are a couple of interviews that shed light on her career and work, this one from 1989 in The Comics Journal and this one from 2016 in The Guardian.

All the reviews I have read have lauded this book. Annie Mok called it "A great introduction for new fans, an excellent choice for young readers, and a gift to Barry’s devotees, The Greatest of Marlys comes as a reminder of Lynda Barry’s stunning, evocative, hysterically funny, haunting cartooning." In a starred review Publishers Weekly promises, "This book will bring groovy love into your life." Jeff Provine called it "a fun and inspiring romp through the complex days of the first turn of young lives." Mey Valdivia Rude rightly called Barry "one of the greatest American cartoonists of all time."

The Greatest of Marlys! was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they have a preview and more about it here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Dark Knight: A True Batman Story

This book's author Paul Dini should be very well known to superhero fans. He was one of the writers and producers of the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series and he co-created the uber-popular Harley Quinn. He has also written a bunch of comic books and had a hand in many animated series/features starring DC Comics characters over the years. But in Dark Knight: A True Batman story he tells an account from his life that happened while he was at the early height of his success. One night, while walking home after a bad date he was mugged, attacked, and brutally beaten. The events left him scarred both emotionally and physically. Here, he uses some of the characters he is most associated with, including Batman and the Joker, as kind of angels and devils to tell his tale and also sort through his personal baggage.
I think overall that this book works well. I thought the actual account is compelling and seeing the aftermath of such a violent act told in frank manner was eye-opening. Dini does much soul-searching in this book, and I could certainly relate to many of his ruminations on being a fanboy with issues relating to specific types of people.

Still, I wonder how much of his storytelling is for effect, as a couple of moments really stand out in my mind as potentially problematic. One, the opportunistic, narcissistic woman he thinks he is dating, while she regards him as a friend who might be a connection for her own career, comes off as utterly the worst person. I have heard about lots of opportunistic Hollywood-wanna-bes and what they will do to further their careers, and maybe she was utterly horrible, but her portrayal seems two-dimensional and skirts misogyny. Second, there is a moment during his recovery where what seems to be the only African-American who works on the show asks if his assailants were black. I think this moment is supposed to show racial solidarity in some way, but it comes off as tin-eared and ham-handed. I know that superheroes at the time this story takes place were largely the province of white males, and maybe this book accurately portrays the problematic outcomes of that situation. Still, as a present day reader, I felt that both scenes play badly.

Collaborating with Dini on this book is Eduardo Risso, a very talented artist who employs multiple styles and color palettes in visually telling this tale. Risso is an accomplished artist who has won an Eisner Award for his work on 100 Bullets, and he has more recently been at work on the werewolf/gangster drama Moonshine. Dini is also a multiple Eisner Award winning author, most notably for the book Mad Love. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Jesse Schedeen concluded, "It offers a very personal and heartfelt look at how the character helped guide Dini through a terrible time in his life, and it proves all the more that both Dini and Risso are among the most talented storytellers ever to work within Gotham City." Bryan Young gushed, calling it "a truly unique comic storytelling experience that has to be seen to be believed." Gregory Paul Silber wrote, "Dini may have been through a terrible ordeal, but he is a lucky man to have such wonderful people to collaborate with."

Dark Knight: A True Batman Story was published by Vertigo, and they have more info about it here.
In addition to the violence, this book features some profanity and adult themes, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Be Your Own Backing Band

Be Your Own Backing Band is the latest collection of comics from Liz Prince, an Ignatz Award winning cartoonist. I have read, admired, and reviewed a couple of her other books, Alone Forever, which focuses on her love life, and Tomboy, which focuses on her formative years. Both books are full of excellent observational humor and they are also very relatable. I love the nerdy persona that Prince portrays in these books.

This latest collection focuses on Prince's musical tastes, and they were originally published in Razorcake Magazine. She tends to like punk bands, and I have to admit I was not very familiar with many of the ones she talks about, but I could totally relate to tales of geeking out over a particular band, elaborate trips to go to shows, and the autobiographical connections she makes throughout.
And as you can see from the excerpts here, each chapter/episode lasts about a page, and they do not necessarily follow in any particular order other than chronological. So this book is a relatively breezy read that you can take in parts or in larger chunks. It works well either way.
I am enamored with Prince's observational and self-deprecating sense of humor, and I really enjoyed reading this book. If you or someone you know is into music, or just has a punk rock sort of mentality, this would be a fun book to read.

I was not able to find a lot of reviews of this book, but the ones I read have been positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that she found much to relate to and sympathize with, even if she was unfamiliar with most of the bands mentioned in the book. There are a bunch of reviews of it over at Goodreads, where it has a 3.72 overall rating.

Be Your Own Backing Band was published by Silver Sprocket, and they offer a preview and more about it here. It does contain a fair share of profanity, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle that.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

All the Answers

I am a big fan of Michael Kupperman's comics. Tales Designed to Thrizzle was one of my favorite series, and I adored the humor of Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010. His combination of deadpan faces with absurd, surreal imagery and situations have consistently cracked me up. I even have a print of his "Are Comics Serious Literature" on my office wall. So when I learned he had a full length graphic novel forthcoming, I was jazzed. When I found out it was a serious, nonfiction work, I was intrigued even further. This book, All the Answers did not disappoint in any way. It's a fantastic, gripping, and thought-provoking work.

This book is mostly a biography of his father, Joel Kupperman, a famous child prodigy who starred on a radio/TV show called Quiz Kids. He began on the show from age 6 and became a break-out star who toured the country and met many famous people for more than a decade. He had a gift for mathematics and could do algebra problems in his head with relative ease. There was a backlash from being so familiar and appearing so perfect, not to mention pressures from being in the public spotlight for so long, and later in life he basically shut the whole episode away. Joel Kupperman went on to become a successful philosophy professor, mostly interested in exploring ethics, but he refused to engage with any part of his prior life. This situation also affected how he raised his own children, and we see the long-term effects in this book.
The detached art style responsible for the humor in Michael Kupperman's earlier works here plays in a much more dramatic way, communicating the detached way that the older Kupperman treated his own family. The title of the book has a double meaning, one linked to Joel's ability to always come up with the correct solution, but the second is more ironic. In the end Michael Kupperman has lots of questions about his father's life and motivations that lie unanswered. What is more, he constantly questions whether bringing all these issues into the light via this book is a good idea. In the end, this book is a meditation about families, how they relate to each other, and the roles of parents with their children. It also has a lot to say about the functions of popular culture and the early days of television. It is wonderfully provocative and affecting, an excellent biography, history, memoir, and autobiography all in one.

If you would like to learn more about Kupperman's inspirations and work on this book, check out this interview with the Comics Alternative.

All of the reviews I have read of this book sing its praises. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and wrote that the combination of art and text "help turn an already incredible story into an electrifyingly fast-paced, yet intimate memoir about family secrets and the price children can pay for their parents’ ambitions." Rob Clough concluded his review, "He told his father’s story as authentically as he could, but the fact that he had the guts to admit that this didn’t lead to a magical catharsis doesn’t puncture a hole in the narrative; it simply grounds it in reality." Greg Hunter called it "a brave piece of storytelling."

All the Answers was published by Gallery 13, and they offer more info about it here.