Nimona

nimonabynoellestevenson by Noelle Stevenson
ISBN: 9780062278227

This graphic novel is full of so much win.

It is hard to know what to include and what to leave out of this post, because I don’t want to spoil the joy of reading and discovering things for yourself.

The art is wonderful. No stereotypical musclebound heroes or mostly naked impossibly shaped women here, for instance. There’s the right level of detail and variety in page layouts. I was glad it was in color, as the palette choices really added to the story.

The story is fantastic, in both the “it was highly entertaining” and “there are dragons and people wear cloaks” kind of way. The pacing and the plot just work.

It is also very funny. Some of the character names are delightfully almost too much: Lord Ballister Blackheart and Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. Yeah, just guess who is the hero and who is the villian… but don’t bet money on it. Maybe.

So, you should probably just click on over to Noelle Stevenson’s website and/or stop in at your local bookstore and buy it. They should have it; Nimona was a National Book Award finalist. It is absolutely worth it. Highly recommended.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins
ISBN: 9781250050397

This graphic novel starts off whimsical yet dark, in way that I found to be (in a good way) reminiscent of Dr Seuss:

Beneath the skin
of everything
is something nobody can know.
The job of the skin
is to keep it all in
and never let anything show.

Collins maintains this balance throughout; his story is at once both absurd and understandable, impossible and yet recognizable. It’s a parable in which is it easy to recognize our world. (This might be the perfect Sunday afternoon read if you have the Sunday dreads. I am lucky enough to not have them now, but I remember what they are like.) This is the story of orderly Here, which is so perfect it is even shaped like an egg, and the suppressed realized of the existence of There, which is beyond the sea. Residents of Here are so bent on tidy perfection and ignoring all else they literally turn their backs to the sea and do all they can not to even hear the waves.

It’s about conformity, about work being separated from meaning (after his powerpoint presentations, the protagonist Dave finds himself with “the familiar, disturbing suspicion that the real reason for all the data and the meetings for A&C even being here was fear”), and about attempts to keep chaos at bay.

Not all the attempts, despite appearances to the contrary in impeccably maintained Here, succeed. In the resulting emerging messiness Collins skewers the media/pop psychology/reality tv circus that relies on whipping up people’s fear and offers to calm them. He also subtly pokes at obsession with mobile devices, and makes less subtle points about the reframing and commodification of memory.

And ultimately,
what is the
act of naming,
but a special kind…
of tidying away?

The art is wonderfully detailed, with soft pencil crosshatching that never feel starkly black and white. Collins uses a variety of panel layouts and full page bleeds to good effect, helping move his story along and creating a believable world in which something magnificently, fantastically impossible occurs.

Is there freedom in what looks like chaos? Is redemption for one’s part in fueling events possible? Perhaps. This is also about stories. The stories Dave tells himself as he sketches his perfect street, his neighbors, their cats. It’s about noticing things, what’s there, what’s visible, and how they aren’t always the same thing, for “stories are such necessary lies.”

Highly recommended. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a graphic novel this much. Not that you have to be a comics fan to enjoy this; it might help, but all you really need is an appreciation for the absurd and a willingness to be told a story.

The Best American Comics 2012

edited by Françoise Mouly
ISBN: 9780547691121

I used to read a lot more graphic novels than I do now, so when I came across this year’s anthology, I figured it was past time to see what was up.

It’s a big, fat, colorful hardcover book. The comics inside are sometimes in full color, sometimes in black and white, and there’s a nearly fifty page “for kids” section in the back — an interesting choice, considering that there are definitely not for kids stories in the front of the book. I recognized about half the names, and was a bit surprised I knew that many.

The comics from Charles Burns, Nora Krug, Anders Nilsen, and Joyce Farmer were probably my favorite, along with the not-so-much-comics-but-included contributions from Leanne Shapton and Renée French. I was happy that Mouly used a more expansive definition of comics in compiling this anthology — it helped me get to where I hope anthologies will take me, which is asking myself questions about how to tell stories, and surprised at all the things people come up with.

Not that I liked all the stories; I didn’t. I came away from Chester Brown’s contribution thinking he’s a jerk — not that the story is bad, in fact it’s told well. (Enough else has been written about Paying for It that I don’t feel the need to go on about it, other than to say that in this excerpt, I thought the narrator was unlikeable, and that isn’t how I thought I’d react.)

This Best anthology covers a range of artists and subjects (prostitution, war, relationships, aging parents, video games, the housing market) so there is probably something for everyone; whether there is enough there there to justify the cost, well, that is always the issue with a collection. One of the tipping points for me was the inclusion of author pages, which give more context for the work and the artist. The book lends itself to a big game of “if you like this, then…” as good anthologies should.

The Gigantic Robot

The Gigantic Robot by Tom Gauld by Tom Gauld
ISBN: 97819354430001

I love Gauld’s work. It’s hard to imagine the effort that must go into the cross-hatched worlds he creates, I can only say the result is worth it. If you’ve seen any of his work before (and between The Guardian and his book cover work, you probably have) you will immediately recognize this as his. He quietly captures determination, futility, and foolishness with wry humor — it seems to be his stock and trade — and this book doesn’t disappoint. All this and a giant robot, how can you not like it?

The Complete Peanuts

1950 to 1952 (Volume 1)
by Charles Schulz
ISBN: 9781560975892

For most of my childhood, Peanuts was at the top of the comics page in the local paper. Garfield might have supplanted them in the number one spot for a time. This dates me, I realize. That’s okay, my being dated is why I’m writing about Charlie Brown and Snoopy: I decided to read all of Peanuts in my forties. I turned forty in December, so time to start.

This project is possible because Fantagraphics is republishing all fifty years of Peanuts. No wonder it seemed that Peanuts was always there (and always would be) — it started twenty years before I was born, and continued on the funny pages after I moved away from home and stopped reading the local paper. Charles Schulz published the comic strip from 1950 to shortly before his death in 2000. It was his life’s work.

The editions Fantagraphics are publishing aim to be worthy of a life’s work. I’ve decided to go for the two issues together in a box set configuration, so I get four years of the strip side by side, protected by a sturdy, well-designed slipcase. (They are up to 1978 now, and and at the rate they are going, will hit fifty years before I do.) The books are designed by Seth and include essays and interviews. This volume includes an introduction by Garrison Keilor, an essay by David Michaelis, and an interview with Schulz. The library geek part of me was happy to see an index.

Most importantly, this first volume collects the strips from Peanuts debut toward the end of 1950 through December 1952. Despite the popularity of Peanuts collections over the years, some of these strips have never been republished. They are printed three strips per page, with a whole page for Sunday’s comic, but not in color. I imagine the cost of color would have been prohibitive, and the choice works: adding color to the collection would have felt gaudy. Even the color on the cases and dust jackets is understated — the focus is on the lines, on what Schulz created in black and white.

What he created was funny little stories, sometimes about melancholy, depression, and quiet desperation, though we don’t often think of them that way. These strips can be a comfort, an amusement, can provide a moment to stop and think. Here you see Charlie Brown before his shirt gets the zig-zaggy stripe; how Linus was introduced as a baby as was Schroeder. You see the small common things that set the groundwork for what would become a life’s work.

I’m looking forward to collecting and reading all the volumes, seeing what changes and what doesn’t. Charlie Brown will always be Charlie Brown.

One Hundred Demons

by Lynda Barry
ISBN: 1570614598

I’ve had this book for awhile, but I put off reading it because I was leery of the emotional reaction I suspected it would provoke. This might make me kind of chicken, but I don’t really think so. If I was really chicken, this book would still be on my unread shelf (ok, unread bookcase) and I wouldn’t tell you it made me cry.

Not that it is a weepfest. But really, childhood and adolescence is brutal and Barry remembers what it was like. She’s funny and painfully honest and she draws interesting monkeys and octopus-like critters as well as angry mothers. The pen and ink and colors are vibrant without being in-your-face or cartoony in a bad way, and I really like the collage elements occasionally mixed in. Imagine pulling some treasure out of the kitchen junk drawer of from your childhood: her work feels like that.

Barry wants everyone to experience the freedom that can come from creating. The last few pages of the book are instructions on how to draw your own demon. (I haven’t done this yet, but I haven’t dismissed the idea, either.) She sees, from her current vantage point, that “the nine-year-old version of me who made up all those ‘classified stories’ would think that this one has a very happy ending.” This, in a panel where adolescent her, reading the lost and found classifieds, sees “Lost. Somewhere around puberty. Ability to make up stories. Happiness depends on it. Please write.”

Highly recommended, especially if the idea of reading it makes you nervous.

Flinch

by more than a dozen authors, including Shaun Tan
Gestalt Publishing (Australia)
ISBN: 9780977562831

This book is a collection of comic short stories, varying in length from single page/panels to nearly forty pages. The theme is dark/unsettling/creepy, and most of the stories deliver on that, in various shades of gray or simply stark black and white. There’s a bit of everything weird in this collection: prison story, underwater, outer space, ghosts, religious freakiness.

The subtle ones are my favorites — ok, fine, Shaun Tan’s works are my favorites. Shaun Tan is the reason I wanted this book; I’m a fan, and he doesn’t disappoint. The cover, with its two figures down near a surburban fence — are they hiding? cowering? expectant? — with a giant red rabbit’s eye peering over the fence in their direction is definitely unsettling. So too are Tan’s moral lessons (#32: Innocence; #7: Regret; #12: Knowledge). I also liked Mel Tregonning’s “Night” with its uncertain lifeforms growing in the dark, behind a child’s back.

It’s the weirdness that lurks in the every day, in the room that looks like yours, in a neighborhood you can recognize, that is the most disturbing.

Salamander Dream

by Hope Larson
ISBN: 0972179496

This small book (more mass market paperback size than trade paperback, only very thin compared to that fat airplane or beach reading fare) contains a charming story. With green and black ink on white pages Hailey’s childhood summers playing outdoors unfolds.

Sometimes using panels, sometimes with one image filing the page, sometimes sketching breaking into rough sketches, Larson takes us back through memory to childhood. The story isn’t cloying or too cute. Instead, it’s earnest and playful and invites readers to consider the comforts of storytelling.

Salamander seems best kind of imaginary childhood friend — one you can find your way to revisit. Recommended.

Pictures and Words

New Comic Art and Narrative Illustration
edited by Roanne Bell and Mark Sinclair
ISBN: 0300111460

Looking for the ISBN number on this book, it struck me how oddly some books come together: this is put out by Yale University Press, printed in China, and the majority of artists in it are European.

The editors don’t talk much about how they arrived at their selections. They don’t have much to say at all, opting instead for very brief introductory material and short, blurb-like commentary with each selection. The effect is similar to reading the wall-text at a museum exhibit.

If you are a fan of independently produced/published graphic novels, you’ll find much to like in this collection (Jason, Jordan Crane, Joe Sacco). That there are no superheroes makes sense; this book isn’t about genre in that way. I don’t mean to knock them for who they did include — I love Tom Gauld’s work, as well as Simone Lia’s and they are the front and back covers — but it is easy to wonder at who was chosen and who was not. Unless you have no exposure to contemporary comic art, you’ll probaby find yourself compiling a list of folks who could be included in a book on this topic, but for whatever reason, weren’t included here. I know I did: Actus Tragicus, Craig Thompson, Shaun Tan, and Lynda Barry, just to get started.

I don’t think the editors’ ambition was to present an exhaustive collection, however. This is more a sampling of contempory work, with barely enough framework holding things together — leaving plenty of room for exploration. It’s a large book, and the art is reproduced in color and black and white at high quality — definitely worth leaving out on the coffee table, if you are the sort that would leave an illustration of a giant robot out. Recommended.

Exit Wounds

by Rutu Modan
ISBN: 9781897299067

This book is a slice of different life — unless you are living in Israel and are somewhat accustomed to news of suicide bombings, that is. It is also a quite recognizable slice of life if you’ve ever had a not-too-thrilling job, oddness in your family, a difficult relationship with a parent, or been at a loss trying to understand relationships.

Modan’s story is less dramatic than it seems from the cover images and the setup: there’s been a suicide bombing and someone’s father may be a victim. Most of what would be spectacle in the story happens not in the panels — the explosions aren’t in real time, the most common connections are missed connections — but is unseen. It’s a less dramatic unravelling of events: who women are to the young, taxi-driving Koby Franco; who they are/were to his father; how Koby fits in the pieces of past and present with his dad. The dailiness matters, which is probably why it isn’t as extreme as you suspect it will be. Day after day usually isn’t extreme, or it ceases to be extreme because it is ordinary.

Drawn & Quarterly did a great job, the matte pages work well with the color drawings, and it opens easily with no risk of losing bits of story in the gutter. (The book itself is the shape and size of hardcover novel.) The art is flat and simplified, but still realistic.

Surprisingly, I don’t have strong feelings about the book. It’s well done, it’s interesting, I liked it, but didn’t love it and can’t quite put my finger on why.