Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Nobody's Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead

Bill Griffith has been making comics since 1969, and he was involved in producing a number of underground comix. A few years ago he published Invisible Ink, his debut graphic novel, a history about his mother and an affair she carried on with a famous cartoonist. But he is best known for his long-running syndicated comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, with its serial title character and catchphrase, "Are we having fun yet?" This book, Nobody's Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, is about the unlikely inspiration behind Zippy.

Schlitzie was born in 1901 and originally named Simon. He had a uniquely shaped head (the technical term for it is microcephaly) and some sort of intellectual disability. When he was 8 years old, his parents sold him to a sideshow manager, beginning a long career as a "freak" to be observed at various venues across the country as a "pinhead." He was almost always presented as a female, dressed in a muumuu or hairshirt, and attributed to either a lost civilization, like the Incas or Aztecs, or proposed to be a man/monkey hybrid. Behind the scenes, Schlitzie almost always had a pleasant disposition. His new family of fellow performers looked out for him, and he got to do things he loved, like eat hot dogs or fried chicken and wash dishes. 

Schlitzie even appeared in a couple of motion pictures, most notably the MGM-produced Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, notorious as a cult/midnight movie since its 1932 debut. A good chunk of this book deals with recreating the film and its creation in comics form. Eventually, when attitudes towards displaying disabled peoples changed, he was institutionalized, which crushed his spirits. Only a chance encounter with an off-season sword swallower made an opportunity for him to be released, which led to better circumstances until his death at age 70.
This book is noteworthy on three fronts. First, it is a moving portrait of a unique individual. Second, it contains a good amount of hard-won research. Certainly, not much information existed about the life of Schlitzie in any one place, and the fact that Griffith was able to cobble together so much is impressive. Third, part of this book is his story, but it also acts as a history of side shows and carnivals in the 20th century. There is so much detail in terms of the various locales, the signage at the sideshows, and specific moments. I know I was alternately charmed, moved, and surprised at what I was learning from this book. It is a clear labor of love.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A tender biographical tribute to an artist’s inspiration." John Seven wrote, "Griffith renders the 70 years of Schlitzie’s life with a vivid affection for the areas and landscapes he inhabited, for the cultures he wandered through, and for Schlitzie himself." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "Much like in Freaks, the revelation found in this illuminating work is that the true monsters are the 'normal' people who line up to laugh at or abuse Schlitzie."

Nobody's Fool was published by Abrams, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.
The time Schlitize met Jackie Cooper...

Friday, September 25, 2020

Dragon Hoops

If you have been reading graphic novels (or this blog) for any length of time, you are probably familiar with this book's author Gene Leun Yang. He is one of the premier comics creators working today and a former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Additionally, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and has also won the Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese. He also has won multiple Eisner Awards. He has explored themes of immigration, belief, identity, and growing up in his many works, including The Eternal Smile, Level Up, The Shadow Hero, the twin volumes Boxers & Saints, and New Superman. And (fun fact), I'll be talking with him this week about Superman Smashes the Klan.
The work on hand here, Dragon Hoops, is a rather personal one, about the 2014-2015 Bishop O'Dowd High School basketball team and their march toward a state championship. At the point of this story, Yang had worked at the school for 17 years but was not really much of a sports fan. Part of what drew him to the tale was the fact that the school had made the championship game before and was 0-8. Coach Lou Richie was an alum who played in one of those games and had coached teams in a few more, so his deep involvement and passion are palpable. Further, Yang was fascinated by the collection of players, a diverse set of high school boys with different viewpoints and goals, and how they came together as a team. So, there are lots of people to root for and engage with in this book. As a slight spoiler, Yang becomes a sports fan at the end of the book.

He does a superb job of tackling individual games and the drama they contain. His storytelling in these instances is as powerful as any sports narrative I've read or seen. But this book goes beyond the games. It lets us get to know the students (at least the ones who let Yang get to know them). It shows a side of what being a student athlete entails, with a nuanced exploration of race in multiple arenas. It also dives deep into history, giving background on the school, Catholic schools in general, and the history of basketball going back to Dr. Naismith. The coloring by Lark Pien further makes the games dynamic but also elucidates the many facets of the story. The work on this book is clearly extensive and beautifully presented.

Pushing beyond the boundaries of the sports narrative is a long thread of Yang making explicit that this book is a comic that he is composing. As such, it is full of omissions, biases, and intentional choices to force a certain type of narrative on the proceedings. It is fascinating to see him struggle with the decision to include Coach Phelps, a legendary figure at the school, because of unsettled allegations of sexual misconduct. It is also interesting to see him wrestle with two large decisions, one of whether to quit teaching and focus on creating comics full-time, the other whether or not to accept the position to write Superman for DC Comics, which is a lifelong dream. I also liked some of the metanarrative flourishes, such as when he discusses the specific ways that a student-athlete wants his hair to be depicted, with the conversation literally drawing out his options. This book is clever and self-aware, as much a meditation on the creative process as it is a product of said process.

I can say with authority that this book offers much to a wide array of readers, whether they are sports fans or not. It is a long book but so compelling that I devoured it. Giving more insight into potential audience, reviewer Esther Keller opined, "I think the storytelling style is a bit sophisticated and better suited to high school students, but some middle school kids, especially those into basketball, can and will enjoy the story."

The reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Michelle Falter wrote, "I love how this book is a sports novel about a coach and his team trying to win State for the first time, but also it delves into so so so much more. It deals with everything from fitting in, microaggressions and racism, to self-doubt and taking chances." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "Using a candid narrative and signature illustrations that effectively and dynamically bring the fast-paced games to life, Yang has crafted a triumphant, telescopic graphic memoir that explores the effects of legacy and the power of taking a single first step, no matter the outcome." Jerry Craft wrote, "Framed from the start as a book about the struggle to create a book, Dragon Hoops animates the inner conflict between Gene Yang, computer science teacher; Gene Yang, family man (his wife and four children appear throughout); and Gene Luen Yang, graphic novelist. Is it possible to do all these things simultaneously without literally being Superman?" Kirkus Reviews wrote, "This creative combination of memoir and reportage elicits questions of storytelling, memory, and creative liberty as well as addressing issues of equity and race."

Dragon Hoops was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Sunday, September 20, 2020


As a professor at UTK and a grad of UGA, I have an antipathy for gators. But Investigators is utterly charming and hilarious, and 5-year-old is currently obsessed with it to boot. It stars two gators named Mango and Brash who are agents of Special Undercover Investigation Teams (SUIT). You can tell them apart by their jawlines and coloring. Mango's jaw is round and he is dark green, while Brash is lighter green and has a square jaw. Clad in their high-tech Very Exciting Spy Technology (VEST), they go into action to solve some extraordinary cases. In this book they are trying locate a famous cupcake baker named Gustavo Mustachio, who has gone missing for two weeks, and suspect foul play. 

Also, they want to foil a villain who has stolen a device that digitizes physical money and automatically deposits it electronically. It even works through walls, which makes it especially harmful. It might not be so much a spoiler that these two cases eventually intersect.

As you might tell from the names of devices and agencies, this book is full of puns, and Mango is very fond of them, too. The back and forth conversations and sound effects are frequently funny. This book is also full of pop culture references and snappy dialogue, and the sum of all these things makes it a fun book to read aloud. There is also some potty humor, as the agents' main mode of transportation is flushing themselves down into sewers.

Adding to the fun visually is a wild array of characters and character designs. There is a triceratops escape artist named Houdino. There is a villainous crocodile who is part baked good named Crackerdile. There is a giant chicken who is also a scientist/inventor named Dr. Doodledoo. There is also Doctor Copter, a brain surgeon who was bitten by a rabid helicopter and who is compelled to transform into a helicopter to cover anything especially newsworthy. There is lots of whimsy and invention at play in this book, and my 5-year-old is really taken by this motley assortment of characters. He especially wants to read and re-read the chapters that tell Dr. Copter and Crackerdile's origin stories.

The end-papers also have a few bonus features, including a guide on how to draw the main characters, which my son is very into. Altogether, this book has lots to offer in terms of readers young and old. It is fun to read together. It has vibrant, unique characters. The plot is off-the-wall and the dialogue laugh-out-loud funny. It truly is a great graphic novel for all ages, which is a pretty hard trick to pull off.

This book was created by John Patrick Green. I enjoyed his first graphic novel Hippopatomister, and he has also drawn a number of other books for children as well as the mini-comic Teen Boat! written by Dave Roman. He speaks about the origins of the Investigators series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews concluded that it was "silly and inventive fast-paced fun." Publishers Weekly called it "fast-paced fun for the bad pun and dorky joke crowd: 'Now let’s flush ourselves down the nearest toilet and GATER DONE!'" Kate Quealy-Gainer wrote, "While the art is a bit more sophisticated than Pilkey’s Dogman, the tone is the same, and those waiting for the next installment of that series may want to spend time with this weird reptilian pair."

Investigators was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here. A sequel is due to be published at the end of the month.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Action Presidents, Books 3 & 4

I reviewed the first two volumes in this series last year, but they have recently been re-issued in color, to coincide with these two new, full-color releases.

In that review, I wrote, "Not only do these books present distinct portraits of both men, it also situates their lives and actions in historical and governmental contexts. They are great resources for learning about the US government, policies, and laws, and I was very impressed by how many of the social studies they entailed. Also, there is also a good dose of humor throughout the volumes, embodied by the narrator, a pardoned turkey named Noah (the Historkey), and not a few fart jokes. Sometimes those instances felt a little like "sugar to make the medicine go down," but overall I feel the tone and content of these books was spot-on. I heartily recommend either (better, both!) volume to any class library."
I feel that the same words apply to these two new volumes in the series, but without fart jokes. But I am also more conflicted about these books, especially the fourth one, because I found some huge issues with representation, as you will read below.
As you can see, Book 3 is about Theodore Roosevelt, and it is framed by the Historkey meeting up with a couple of children who got lost on a camping expedition. The set-up helps get at some of the naturalistic aspects of the president's life. This book introduces TR as a privileged, if sickly, member of a rich and powerful family. It goes on to show how he was simultaneously an adventurer who got himself into some sticky situations (including being a rancher out west and soldier) and also accomplished a number of Progressive accomplishments, including breaking down monopolies, fighting government corruption, and establishing a number of pro-environmental policies. He also played a large part in shifting political powers to the presidency via executive orders, a legacy that lasts to present day.
There are also a number of other common stories in the mix, like the famous teddy bear episode as well as the Rough Riders and their role in battles in Cuba, which included quite a few more facts than I was familiar with. The teddy bear story ended up being a bit more gruesome than I remembered, and the Rough Riders' adventures were slightly less heroic also. So overall, I think that this portrait of TR is a fairly even-handed one, with him being cast as an unlikely hero who had some character flaws. My only quibble is a matter of representation of some peoples. I get that this books uses graphic shorthand to communicate, and I am not so sure of how well researched the garb of native peoples was, but it seemed stereotypical to me. More so with the representation of the Spanish government as a toreador.
Book 4 focuses on John F. Kennedy, and in contrast with TR, he came from a family of immigrants who fought hard to establish themselves in the USA in legal and illegal manner. The framing sequence here is of a couple of children (one apparently Pakistani and the other more a generically depicted Asian) who are isolated from the main group of children during a trip to the Kennedy Space Center because their lunches "smell weird." The theme of immigration and integration runs throughout the book, with the ethos of the USA being a place of opportunity for all being reinforced by JFK's story as a model for those two children. I don't know if I am being cynical or if I am being affected by the immense anti-immigrant agenda I see in the US government and society right now, but something about this message just seemed a bit too pat and color-blind. Like my colleague Dr. Laura Jimenez recently wrote, I expect a little more in this day and age. 
A lot of US history is affected by whiteness, which conveys the dominant narrative, and in hindsight I think that is a major blind-spot the books in this series books have, as well-meant as they are. Perhaps it is the perception that younger readers should be protected from these more complex, oppressive views of history, and maybe I am asking a lot of a series of books narrated by a talking turkey, but I still felt they came up short in the area of representation. 
This disparity really hit me in the JFK volume. The two children who are held up at the end of the book as the resilient hope for our future simply do not enjoy the same built-in advantages as the four Christian white men (Washington, Lincoln, TR, and JFK) spurring them on. I get the drive to extend from JFK's famous exhortation to "Ask not what your country can do for you...," but I also get that systemic racism goes well beyond children being mean to each other at lunchtime (though that may be a relatable and apparent symptom to younger people). This ending puts all the onus to adapt and effect change on the young people, and I think that is a huge burden that is not acknowledged. Also, it ignores the fact that it is the very system being celebrated that is doing the oppressing. Thus, the ending seems pat and disingenuous to me.
Regarding the rest of the book, it is chock full of historical information. It offers a look at the many aspects of JFK's life and how it was affected by his father's drive to involve his children in politics, serving in Wold War II, dealing with the Cold War, getting elected to the Senate and then President, and the many conflicts he had to deal with, including those with Cuba and the Soviet Union. There is also a good bit about the Civil Rights movement of the time, with its accomplishments and accompanying violence. Ironically, all this work took place in the past and is not really explicitly tied to the present-day plight of the two children. This to me is a lost opportunity to make the connection to the ongoing battle for civil rights, implying that those battles were fought (and won) in the past. This book also gets into the Camelot period of his presidency, though it is not exalted as much as I have seen in other works. 

As you might tell by now, I was not as taken by this book as I was the others from this series. In terms of history and government, this book covers a lot of ground. In some ways, I think this left me a bit breathless, and I wonder how much context unfamiliar readers would need to deal with the text. It is an ambitious book, and perhaps that drive to do so much detracts from other areas, like the framing sequence where I feel perhaps the two children should have been a bit more fleshed out so as not to seem generic types that feed into the same sorts of stereotypes the book tries to transcend.

These books are the product of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, frequent collaborators who both have numerous comics credits for multiple publishers. They have collaborated on two prior historical comics projects, Action Philosophers! and The Comic Book History of Comics. Currently the duo are working on The Comic Book History of Animation, which I helped fund via their Kickstarter.

I have not been able to locate any reviews of these two books yet, but the TR one has a 3.67 (out of star rating on Goodreads, and the JFK one has a 3 star rating (as of this post).

Action Presidents! were published by Harper Collins, and there is more information about all the books in the series here.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Science Comics: Crows: Genius Birds

I never would think that a graphic novel about crows would have me completely rapt, but this book Crows: Genius Birds is exceptionally good. I've read almost all the books in the Science Comics series and this one is easily one of the best. It has a fun framing sequence and is chock full of interesting facts about corvids. The framing sequence involves the smartest crow in the world recruiting a dog named Buddy to help him dump over receptacles on garbage day so they can both feast. Along the way, the crow regales Buddy on all sorts of crow facts, including how they can learn to identify people's faces, imitate bird calls and human voices, and even use tools.

What is most fascinating about this book to me is how well it uses the framing narrative to present science facts. It works in almost seamless fashion to both entertain and inform. I was fascinated to read about the various experiments people have done to learn about crow's behaviors, including seeing how they use specific tools, solve problems, and even learn to complete complex tasks. The fact that they have uniquely shaped brains gives them the ability to perform in ways that match the intelligence of small children. Their abilities to adapt and learn are part of why they come into conflict with people, because they are constantly figuring out ways to circumvent whatever obstacles they encounter. This book really calls into question the simple way of thinking of crows as mere pests, and I think that books that can change people's thinking in this way are rare and noteworthy.

The artwork in this volume is very clear and colorful. I admire how it switches back and forth from propelling the plot and elucidating information or explaining an experiment. It is one of the most accessible and engaging science books I have read, and I think it would be attractive and useful for a wide array of readers.

I am very impressed by what I think is the graphic novel debut of Kyla Vanderklugt. She is not a novice comics creator, and in the past she has contributed to a number of comics anthologies, including Flight and Spera.

I have not seen many reviews of this book, but the ones I've read have been very positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that it "is one of the best of this series. It’s everything a non-fiction graphic novel should be: informative, attractive, well-drawn, and fun to read!" Jonathan H. Liu concluded, "If you like crows and want to learn more about them, this book is a great resource." It currently has a 4.53 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

Crows: Genius Birds was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

History Comics

Apparently, the fine folks at First Second have found a lot of success in their Science Comics series and have branched out into other areas. That series has been of overall high quality, and I have high expectations for whatever they publish. Their first other series is Maker Comics, which is sort of a practical extension of the SC series, with titles about fixing cars, baking, and building robots. I reviewed one title here, and I was pretty impressed with it. More recently, they also branched out with a series aimed at social studies topics, History Comics. They have two titles out so far, and I review them below.

The first book I read was The Great Chicago Fire: Rising from the Ashes, which is about the huge 1871 blaze that destroyed a huge section of The Windy City. This book makes the events here very personal, following a couple of siblings Franny and J.P. who live nearby where the fire started and have to traverse the city in order to avoid the flames. They are great point-of-view characters who both narrate historical/geographic information and also put a human face on the goings-on.

This book gets into all sorts of issues, including the prejudice against immigrants and how the legend was created that blamed Mrs. O'Leary (and her cow) as the cause of the fire. Attention is also paid to the urban planning (or lack thereof) at the time and how the city was rebuilt in the aftermath of the fire, with the advent of skyscrapers and other technological innovations. All of these were showcased 22 years later at the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition.

The end of the book is rounded out with some nifty features, like a timeline of events, a list of facts about the Chicago Fire, and a map of relevant historical sites to visit today. I really enjoyed reading this book, and I feel it's a good, highly accessible introduction to the series.

It was written by Kate Hannigan, a former journalist who has written a number of middle grades and picture books, including the multiple award-winning The Detective's Assistant. It was illustrated by Alexandra Gaudins, who also drew The Brain entry of Science Comics as well as a number of digital and webcomics.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Esther Keller wrote, "The fast-paced read is highlighted with superb artwork that evokes the time period and gives readers the feeling of chaos that ensued in Chicago." Kirkus Reviews concluded, "A fictive plotline adds a strong “you are there” feel to this informative account."

The second book I read was The Roanoke Colony: America's First Mystery, which is about the first attempts of the British to establish a permanent colony in North America. It is narrated by Wanchese and Manteo, two indigenous leaders that the English encountered. They offer a good contrast with their viewpoints, as in reality Wanchese was more weary of the British and their intentions. Both also traveled to England, and Manteo was the first Native American to be baptized into the Church of England

This book is more packed with information, and it gives a broad context to the times and geography. It tells of the various indigenous nations that were active in the area, along with their political structures, homes, and tools. It sheds extensive light on the British politics of the day, with particular attention to Queen Elizabeth I (who brushed her teeth with honey-!!!), "debonair hot boy" Sir Walter Raleigh, and pilot/pirate Simon Fernandes. It chronicles conflicts with rival European nations and also pirates. The failure of this colony lie in a great number of factors, including colonial cluelessness, skirmishes with local peoples, lack of supplies, improper training of colonists, needlessly cruel leadership, and privileging capitalist interests over people's general safety. I was impressed by how much nuance and detail is packed into this book with it still being so accessible and engaging.

This book does not have the same features that concluded The Great Chicago Fire, but I also feel that it covers lot more content in terms of historical context and complexity. Instead it ends with possible solutions to the mystery of what happened to this "lost colony" that was left to its own devices for months. These final pages offer a number of possibilities, starting with the evidence that they literally left a note on a tree that they had gone to the island of Croatoan (where Manteo was from) but storms complicated any search efforts. Among these possible endings are that the colonists may have been slaughtered by any number of factions, including natives or the Spanish, abducted by aliens(!), or assimilated into local nations. Reading this book, it is easy to see why this mystery is still so compelling, especially when presented in such a well-researched manner.

The creator behind this book is Chris Schweizer, who also made the volume of Maker Comics I just reviewed. Like I wrote then, he is a comics Renaissance man who has created a few series like the Crogan's Adventures and The Creeps. He has a bent toward historical works and is one of the best artists working right now, IMHO.

I have not found as many reviews of this book online, but the ones I have read have been full of praise. Carin Siegfried wrote that it "was a lot of fun, really informative, and I especially liked how the story was told from the perspectives of the Native Americans." As of this writing, it has a 4.14 (out of 5) star rating at Goodreads.

Both of these volumes of History Comics were published by First Second, and they offer more info about them and future volumes in the series here.