Category Archives: graphic

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.

Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc by Tony Lee; illustrated by Sam Hart

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messengerMessenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc by Tony Lee; illustrated by Sam Hart
Candlewick, 2015.

From the writer/illustrator team of Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood (2009) and Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur (2011) comes this dramatic graphic novel interpretation of the story of Joan of Arc, set during the 100 Years’ War, and framed by her trial for heresy in 1431.

Following a fall and head injury, Joan (or Jehanne) has her first saintly vision when she was 13. She follows her ‘voices’ and leads the French army to drive the occupying English back. With the coronation of Charles VII, the French impetus stalls, and the English surge back; Joan is captured, tried, found guilty and burnt at the stake.

Joan is depicted as a punky, driven young woman, a leader utterly sure of her destiny. Her conviction and courage in the face of doubters, as well as the risks she takes by, for example, wearing men’s clothes, come through, but she is still a very human character as well.MESSENGER_spread

The historical narrative – the battles, the strategy, the trial – is well laid out, though occasional details are confusing, not helped by some of the characters being indistinguishable. Described as a work of fiction, there is, unfortunately and irritatingly, no author’s note to separate what is invention, and what is real and “used fictitiously.”

The illustrations are dynamic, but sometimes indistinct on details, and a strong use of color denotes the mood – a melancholy blue for the trial, a fierce red for battle scenes, an intense gold for Joan’s visions.

Overall this is decent, accessible historical fiction, ideal for tween and young teens.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

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nimonaNimona by Noelle Stevenson
HarperTeen, 2015.

Ballister Blackheart, archvillain and nemesis of heroic Ambrosius Goldenloin, suddenly finds himself with a new sidekick – a young girl called Nimona. Nimona is a highly gifted shape-shifter – she can switch from shark to cat to dragon and back supersmoothly.

But it turns out the real villain at work here is Goldenloin’s boss at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, who is plotting against the kingdom.  In fact, the lines between good and evil turn out to be very much grayer than the names suggest – hatchet-faced Blackheart is actually quite warmhearted, and blond-tressed Sir Goldenloin is a weak and malleable pawn of the Institution. And for supposed arch-enemies, their bond goes back a long way, and is intriguingly fluid.nimona characters

Nimona is a sharp-witted, punky, and determined protagonist, and one that is not quite the naif she first appears to be. And further compounding the play on stereotypes, Nimona shows herself to have more of a thirst for evil deeds than Blackheart does, as she eggs him on to commit acts of villainy.

I loved the world that Ms. Stevenson has created here: it is a full-blown medieval kingdom with knights, wenches, jousting and castles; but it also is equipped with the most up-to-date technology.

blackheartThe illustrations, which are laid out in traditional panels, are focused more on the characters, who convey much with minimal lines, than on the settings which are as minimal as you might find in a black box theater. I found some of the details of the images a little hard to distinguish, and some of the type a little on  the small side (getting old here), so I do feel like a larger format book would give the graphics just a bit more room to breathe.

Originally an award-winning webcomic, I think Nimona will be as successful as Ms Stevenson’s previous book Lumberjanes (BOOM! Box, 2015), and could well have the same middle grade crossover appeal as the graphic novels of Raina Telegemeier.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner

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gaijin coverGaijin: American Prisoner of War written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Disney Hyperion, 2014

This graphic novel, inspired by the author’s family, is a hard-hitting introduction to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Koji Miyamoto turns 13 on December 7, 1941 – the day that Japanese fighter planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Eventually Koji is sent to a “relocation camp” accompanied by his Caucasian mother. Having faced abuse and prejudice from white Americans in his hometown of San Francisco, he now faces the same from a gang of young Japanese men in the camp who call him “gaijin” (foreigner). Haunted by dreams of his absent father, Koji rebels and joins the gang in an attempt to escape the camp.

This is a good first stop for middle graders interested in the controversial topic of the effective imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans, though it lacks the weight for a high school read. It shows the speed and inequity of how the process was managed – people lost their possessions, their homes and their businesses – but also the stoicism and dignity with which many Japanese Americans faced it. However, the story only covers the first few months, when Koji and his mother are put into a holding camp; it ends when they are being transported to Camp Agua Dulce, a stand-in for the Manzanar Camp.gaijin inside

The narrative is short and unadorned, but is greatly expanded by the painterly illustrations. The large, often full page, panels, in earthy ochres with muted blues accents, are filled with distinctly drawn people, with often caricature-ish features. Koji’s dreams of his father burn bright with reds and greens, and break through the limits of the panels.

The author includes his family story in the backmatter, as well as some selected resources for further information. Interested middle grade readers might want to look at nonfiction accounts including Remembering Manzanar by Michael L. Cooper (Clarion, 2002) and the anthology Only What We Could Carry (Heyday, 2000).

 

Ares, Bringer of War written and illustrated by George O’Connor

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ares coverAres, Bringer of War written and illustrated by George O’Connor
First Second, 2015

Unlike other more biographical entries in The Olympians series, this graphic novel version of Homer’s Iliad brings to life what I recall, from O’Level Classical Studies, being a rather dry read about the Trojan War. This shows the gods watching the war from Mount Olympus like a video game, with some rooting for the Greeks and some for the Trojans, depending on a complex and incestuous web of connections (luckily Mr O’Connor gives us the doozy of a family tree on the inside front cover).

The introductory section explains the differences between the two gods of war: Athena is about strategy and is “the voice that speaks reason in the heat of battle” whereas Ares lives in “the chaos, the confusion, and the horror” that can overtake soldiers “when the best laid plans have gone awry.” As the gods help their favorites and seek vengeance for slights, the Greeks and Trojans are just pawns in a game that eventually the gods lose interest in after Achilles defiles the body of Hector. The book finishes, a little lamely, with a whirlwind page on the rest of the Trojan War, much as the Iliad does.

The color panels in Troy move between cool blues for Athena’s strategy and rusty/earthy reds and browns for the blood-soaked visceral rampaging of Ares. The minimalist, neutral and serene Olympus reflects the ennui and omniscience of the gods. It is encouraging to note that both mortals and immortals have a diverse range of skin tones. However, and maybe I’m reading too much into this, I’m a little uneasy that Ares, the raging, and bloodthirsty god, is the only dark-skinned male as it feels like it plays to the Scary Black Man trope.

The end notes are fun, as Mr O’Connor gives some entertaining information about how he used details from the Iliad to inform his story and illustrations, including the tidbit that gods weigh more than mortals.

This is a hugely popular series with upper elementary/middle school kids (and older) and there’s no reason why this should not continue the trend.