Category Archives: graphic

Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin

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Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin
Lion Forge, 2018.

In this elegant graphic memoir, originally published in France in 2015, the white French author goes to Algeria to visit the places her settler family had lived in before they left in the 1960’s after the War of Independence. Olivia has her grandmother’s written memories to guide her along with a local contact called Djaffar.

The novel switches between the present day, her family’s time in Algeria, and Olivia’s and her mother’s early years in France. Olivia’s views on France’s presence in Algeria had been formed by her relatives’ rosy stories of their colonial past, but these were challenged by her school and college friends. It is only now, years later, when she is actually in the country that she can form her own perspective.

A map on the endpapers – clean at the front and marked up with the route and notes at the back – gives a guide to the trip. The detailed black and white illustrations, augmented with the occasional color “photograph” from Olivia’s trip, show the present and the past and their frequent overlap. The scenes of her quest capture the charms of the people, the buildings, and, with an occasional double page spread, the landscape of Algeria and she finally understands why her mother could never find anywhere to settle in France.

As Olivia and Djaffar drive into the Aurès mountains, they find many people who knew her family and are happy to show her their old houses. Even in Algiers, she is welcomed into the family who have lived in her grandparents’ apartment since they left.

Some of this historical background might be a bit challenging for Americans as it assumes at least a basic familiarity with France’s troubled relationship with Algeria, and though there are footnotes to help on specific points, there is no author’s note with some more general background. Nonetheless, it is an evocative memoir about uncovering the past and exploring how it has impinged on the present.

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Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

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Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green
Roar, 2018

Using deceptively simple drawings and a shades of gray palette, British illustrator Green relives her battle with eating disorders from a young age through to her young womanhood.

Even as a young girl, Katie had a difficult relationship with food. As she enters secondary school, and social pressures increase it develops into full blown anorexia. Green pulls no punches about how it affected her and her family. After ineffective treatment after ineffective treatment, her father takes her to see an alternative therapist and while initially his support and confidence building seems to really help her, it later becomes something much darker.

Green shows how her eating disorder is a manifestation of her need for control and perfection, and how long term therapy ultimately helps her, though not in a dramatic “breakthrough” way, rather in a series of small realizations.

With just a few lines, Green is able to convey the depth of her problems. There are many spreads showing her looking in a mirror, and reflecting what she is seeing. The device of using a noisy black cloud over her head to show her disorder which grows and recedes, overwhelms and surrounds, and never quite goes away is illuminating of the omnipresence of her troubles.

I think this graphic novel does a superb job of showing how eating disorders are related to other psychological problems; how girls with these troubles are able to skate by without people really noticing, or noticing and not realizing the depth of the problem, and how therapy can be such a powerful tool to combat it.

As a high school librarian I feel this is such an important book to get into the hands of young women who are under such pressure to perform academically, and to conform socially and physically. Maybe for one or two of them it will show them that they’re not alone.

Magnificent.

Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.

In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.

With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.

With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.

Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.

An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.

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Black History in Its Own Words written and illustrated by Ronald Wimberley

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Black History in Its Own Words written and illustrated by Ronald Wimberley
Image Comics, 2017

This visually stunning collection of bold portraits of Black icons paired with quotations started as a Black History Month project by Ronald Wimberley in 2015 for an online political comics newsletter, The Nib.

Each double page spread has a high impact black and white comic book style portrait set on a colored background with a quotation incorporated into the illustration. On the facing page, there is some biographical information, sometimes straightforward, sometimes quite sophisticated. There is also usually the source of the quote.  The order of the portraits is a little random – done by date of production and no other discernible organization.

The author has selected his subjects as “people whose words and lives spoke to me personally” and these include Civil Rights notables, such as Angela Davis and Sojourner Truth, and cultural figures including Spike Lee, Prince, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama are notably omitted while more obscure figures, like punk rocker Poly Styrene, are included.

The quotations do not follow a particular theme, and a few lack meaning without context, but overall they add up to an individual and poetic portrayal of Black thought.

However, though the majority of quotations have sources and dates, there are a handful that don’t, and the Works Cited at the back of the book is in unreadably miniscule font.

Thought-provoking browsing for teens and adults.

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Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

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hark a vagrantHark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant is not strictly YA, but nonetheless has enormous appeal to older teens. We’ve had several of the comic strips up in my library and, though it was a bit of a slow burn, they now have many committed fans among the cool young cognescenti.

The comics are witty, erudite, supersmart (though definitely not above a fart joke), have a feminist bent, and make me laugh harder than anything I’ve read or seen in ages. The black and white drawings are deceptively simple, but the characters’ expressions embellish many of the jokes. The helpful and funny footnotes aid comprehension, though not in an entirely straightforward way.lord byron

Collected from a long-running website, the short strips are mainly grouped around satirical literary themes. Hark! A Vagrant opens with ‘Dude Watching with the Brontes’ (“So brooding!”), has a poke at the Scottish Play when one of the three weird sisters can’t meet up when the hurly burly’s done because she has a dental appointment on her calendar, has Nancy Drew’s Ghost of Blackwood Hall playing Bennie and the Jets, and compresses Crime and Punishment into 24 panels, the key clue being Raskolnikov’s article “Murdering Old Ladies: Not Even a Big Deal”. Dracula, Edgar Allan Poe, Robinson Crusoe, King Lear, and many others, all get their serious ideas shredded for some pointed laughs.

Beaton also get some yuks from history with insights on some well-known topics like the French Revolution and the Founding Fathers, but also enjoying sport with the obscurity (at least to us) of Canadian history, and the downtroddenness of “every lady scientist who ever did anything till now.”

But writing any more just continues to prove that Kate Beaton’s writing is way funnier than mine, so the  best thing you can do is grab a copy of one of her books, or click onto her website and enjoy plenty of those satisfying I’ve-just-understood-an-obscure-reference chuckles.

Drowned City written and illustrated by Don Brown

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drowned cityDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans written and illustrated by Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and this powerful Sibert Honor graphic novel looks at the tragic effects and the aftermath of the hurricane on the city and its residents.

The text is short, not simplistic but more in the manner of someone who is so angry they can just get out the basic facts through clenched teeth. Actual quotations (sourced in the notes at the back) are used to bring to life the horror and chaos that ensued once the levees broke and the lack of planning brought death and devastation. There is no beating about the bush: the good guys are recognized, and the incompetent and negligent from the President on down are called out.drowned city interior

Moody and haunting spreads in minor key colors with the occasional splash of vivid orange or red, show the population that is left behind after 80% of the residents evacuated, and their fight to survive. Bodies floating in the water, people struggling to safety, and the nightmare scenes at the Superdome and Conference Center, all serve to bring a human dimension to this racially charged tragedy. With Mayor Nagin missing in action and FEMA completely out of its depth, the immediate horror lasted for nearly a week before transportation out of the city was available.

drowned city interior 2Figures are drawn with just a few evocative lines sketching in their faces: The resignation and weariness, as well as the pragmatism and resilience of the largely African American left behind population, and the vacuous incompetence of the white officials.

I realize that the words I’m using – devastation, incompetence, tragedy – are by now pretty much cliches trotted out in relation to Katrina, and part of the power of this book is that the author avoids using them, and gives us the meaning behind them in his spare prose and illustrations.

Drowned City takes no time to read, but will stay with the reader for days. An absolute must for libraries serving upper elementary and middle grade kids.

Macbeth adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds

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macbeth coverMacbeth adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds
Candlewick, 2015.

For my money, Macbeth is the most accessible of Shakespeare’s tragedies, if not all his play – and consequently one of my favorites. So it’s a natural for Gareth Hinds to take on, after tackling some others from the Bard’s oeuvre including Romeo and Juliet (2013), as well as Homer’s The Odyssey (2010)

I saw an amazing production of Macbeth several years ago at the Open Air Theater in London’s Regent Park, which was billed as being intended for 6 year-olds and up though only, I suspect, if your 6 year-old was wildly precocious. While it’s impossible to compare a live theater production with a comic book, I was hoping for some of that drama and imagination, which I felt I didn’t quite get with this graphic adaptation, but that just may be me being a bit of a Shakespeare snob.

This is a very traditional and rather somber Macbeth set in the 12th century, where Hinds mostly lets the words do the work. The colors for the exteriors are a very Scottish blend of muted greys, blues and greens for the outside, and the interiors are orange and gold bleeding into shades of scarlet and crimson.macbeth interior

Hinds has abridged the text thoughtfully, but has left the words largely untouched, and presented as prose rather than poetry, with only the occasional (noted) clarification. The plot moves swiftly with the narrative flowing easily and comprehensibly. I didn’t care for putting anything to do with dark forces into black speech balloons, and found it a bit clunky.

It is beautifully drawn and very human – we don’t see Macbeth, or Lady Macbeth as monsters, rather as puppets to their fate. The three weird sisters – one ‘traditional’ witch, one African witch doctor and one Gaia type – bring some chill, and, even more so, the three masters they summon. While keeping to a fairly traditional layout, Hinds plays with panel sizes and shapes, most notably with a sinuous jug shape when Lady Macbeth is preparing the drugged wine.

One spread worked astonishingly well – that of Lady Macbeth’s ‘Out, Damned spot’ soliloquy, which is all visceral red, and uncontrollably scraping, chafing hands; and there is a striking image of Macbeth’s shadow as a dagger pointing him to his fate. Macbeth’s soliloquy after Lady Macbeth’s death, when he’s facing a final battle, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, is beautifully illustrated with Macbeth’s world weariness and resignation perfectly captured.

As with previous books, I enjoyed the author’s backnotes on his adaptation of the text, and then some explanations about some of the individual images and panels.

I think Hinds is doing a splendid job bringing classic and rather challenging texts to a more accessible comic book context, and applaud him for his ambition and achievement.