Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: More Non-Fiction Comics

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reading these comics by clicking here.

This is the last of the batch!!! I’ll be posting my picks for Top Ten next week… what would yours be?

Also: HAPPY 3RD ANNIVERSARY, Crunchings & Munchings! Rebecca registered us on WordPress 3 years ago.

masterful-marks

Masterful Marks. Cartoonists Who Changed the World – 16 Graphic Biographies

Monte Beauchamp, editor

Simon & Schuster

Anticipation/expectation level: Picking up the book and flipping through it made me anticipate the act of reading it, because of the wonderful variety of drawing styles, many of them in the style of the artist that they are profiling. But an email discussion about the book pointed out some issues that I hoped wouldn’t be so prominent (spoiler alert: they were).

My Reality: Beauchamp has selected 16 figures who he thinks influenced comics history. The biographies are drawn by a wide range of artists and written by Beauchamp and others. I’m going to quote the publisher’s copy about the book to give you a better idea of the idea:

In a first-of-its-kind collection, award-winning illustrators celebrate the lives of the visionary artists who created the world of comic art and altered pop culture forever.

Sixteen Graphic Novel Biographies of:
• Walt Disney • Dr. Seuss • Charles Schulz • The Creators of Superman • R. Crumb • Jack Kirby • Winsor McCay • Hergé • Osamu Tezuka • MAD creator, Harvey Kurtzman • Al Hirschfeld • Edward Gorey • Chas Addams • Rodolphe Töpffer • Lynd Ward • Hugh Hefner

The story of cartoons—the multibillion-dollar industry that has affected all corners of our culture, from high to low—is ultimately the story of the visionary icons who pioneered the form.
But no one has told the story of comic art in its own medium—until now.

In Masterful Marks, top illustrators—including Drew Friedman, Nora Krug, Denis Kitchen, and Peter Kuper—reveal how sixteen visionary cartoonists overcame massive financial, political, and personal challenges to create a new form of art that now defines our world.

So, according to that, these are the figures that created comics – obviously not true. This is also not the first book that tells comics history in the comics form – there’s the Comic Book History of Comics,  comicbookhistorywhich is longer and more expansive, and might even include women! Actually, I’m not sure about that. But Masterful Marks definitely does not include women. It does manage to include Hugh Hefner, who was an amateur cartoonist and a publisher of comics artist. But it does not not an actual woman who creates comics or publishes comics. No Francoise Mouly. No Lynda Barry or Trina Robbins or Alison Bechdel or Tove Jansson or Jackie Ormes. Masterful Marks is narrowly focused because its editor is narrowly focused.

The comics themselves are lovely. But they are short. There is a lot of information to get into 16 pages or whatever, and so many of them have panels that are too crowded with narration, or panels that just have the biographical figure listing facts about themselves with no arc to the comic. The Walt Disney comic is just 2 anthropomorphic animals roaming the countryside – there is no point to that one being a comic at all.

Some of them are really great! Drew Friedman draws a personal story about how he knows Harvey Kurtzman, and because it has a personal connection that frames the story, it works. It doesn’t try to encompass the man’s entire life.

But not enough of them are great to make this book work. I would love to see full length, even 48 page comic biographies using this conceit, but the collection isn’t coherent enough to be even a rough history of comics, and the comics themselves are hamstrung by the length limitation.

Will teens like it?: I can see teens missing out on a lot of information trying to use this as a resource for a paper.

Is it “great” for teens?: No.

Art Taste:

masterful-marks-rcrumb

masterful-marks-addams

09-Shuster

dreamless dead

Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics.

Chris Duffy, editor

First Second

Anticipation/expectation level: Chris Duffy puts together some really excellent collections of comics adaptations of prose works for First Second, so I figured this had a good chance of being great.

My Reality: The poems and the art in this collection work so, so well together, better than I ever thought they would. The panels of the comics let the reader slow down and not rush through the poetry. It’s a treat to see how each artist tackles and interprets the pieces they have chosen/are assigned. Above the Dreamless Dead is a wonderful book to think about history, visual literacy, and poetry. And a great companion to read with Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood! The artists include Luke Pearson, Eddie Campbell, Anders Nilsen, Danica Novgorodoff and Hannah Berry, among others.

Will teens like it?: They’d be lucky to come across this book.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

dreamlessdead1 dreamlessdead2 dreamlessdead3 dreamlessdead4

MADISON-SQ-TRAGEDYcover

A Treasury of XXth Century Murder:  Madison Square Tragedy – The Murder of Stanford White  

Rick Geary, writer and artist

NBM ComicsLit

Anticipation/expectation level: I like Rick Geary’s historical murder books. They are usually well-researched, with a well-balanced structure of plot, art, and historical context/facts.

My Reality: I was especially interested to read this because of the Pittsburgh connection – the murderer was Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh. As this book shows, he was a real jerk and suffered from a combination of mental illness and wealth that allowed him to shoot a man in the face, beat and emotionally abuse his wife, and feel like it was his right to do so, and suffer barely any consequences for it. Stanford White sounds like a creep, too, but that doesn’t mean he should have been shot in the face. And poor Evelyn Nesbit. This is really her story, and it’s not a happy one.

I think a good comic book about history gives a full story and makes the reader want to dive more into the subject, and Madison Square Tragedy had exactly that effect on me. I closed the book and started looking up Thaw’s home in Pittsburgh, hoping it was still standing (it’s not – but the carriage house was on the market for over a million dollars a couple years back, and that’s a Pittsburgh valuation, which means it would sell for much more in any other city). I did find articles about Thaw’s home and his trial in the New York Times database, and they were fascinating. And I want to know more about Evelyn.

Will teens like it?: I always wonder if the “old timey” stylization of Geary’s art is a barrier for teens – I think that teens who are into true crime stories could get past it, but I don’t think these books, however worthy, are ever going to be shelf-jumpers in the teen section (I just made that term up).

Is it “great” for teens?: I still think it’s great.

Art Taste:

gearypreview

strangefruit

Strange Fruit – Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History

Joel Christian Gill, writer and artist

Fulcrum Publishing

Anticipation/expectation level: The title certainly got me interested!

My Reality: As Gill’s first collection of comics, it shows a progression from competent to assured – you can see him relying on a similar format for story and panels for the first couple stories, then starting to branch out and become more comfortable with using his writing with his art. Consequently, the book gets more powerful as it goes along. Gill starts out with Henry “Box” Brown – the slave who shipped himself to freedom. That is the most well-known of Gill’s subjects – as promised, these are heretofore uncelebrated narratives in Black history, and I love that he has found them and started the celebration.

Will teens like it?: Yes, especially teens looking for subjects for their Black History Month projects.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

strangefruit41

colonial comics

Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750

Jason Rodriguez, editor

Fulcrum Publishing

I’m still on hold for this, wah waaah. The cover has such lovely colors!

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Slices of Life: No Crystal Stair and The Watch That Ends the Night

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

illustrations by R. Gregory Christie

carolrhodaLAB, 2012

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

Allan Wolf

Candlewick Press, 2011
review by Tessa

Characters

No Crystal Stair

Lewis Michaux, headstrong, driven man who wanted to make sure African-Americans knew the history of their people

Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, Lewis’ brother, a famous preacher

Mary Michaux, wife of Lightfoot, disapproving of Lewis

The FBI, wants to keep tabs on this bookseller in Harlem

Malcolm X, a friend of Lewis

The Watch that Ends the Night

The Captain, the Businessman, the Refugee, the Shipbuilder, the Iceberg, the Dragon Hunter, the Immigrant, the Navigator, the Gambler ,the Telegraphist, the Socialite, the Lookout, The Stoker, the Tailor the Tailor’s Son, the Junior Officer, the Violinist, the Baker, the Ship Rat, the Undertaker, the Postman, the Cook…

Hook

The most world-changing bookstore you never knew about, told by the people who were there. The most well-known disaster at sea, told by the people who were there.

Worldview

I chose to review these two books together because they take a similar tactic in dealing with their particular historical investigations. No Crystal Stair calls itself a “documentary novel”, and so I’d call The Watch That Ends the Night a “documentary novel in poems”. Neither are billed as non-fiction, but both explore real historical figures and events. And neither are straight novel or straight poetry, but rather novelistic in scope and varied in voice and structure.

a photo of Michaux’s store, via Harlem World Mag

One of the fun and frustrating things about history is that there’s always another way to look at something.  Even if you were there, a witness to an event, it would often be difficult for you to authoritatively say what happened.  Nelson and Wolf exploit and expand on this aspect of history by breaking their narratives up into voices.

Nelson’s are very much in the talking-head style of a documentary, except written down in paragraphs on the page: “All those black books! I’ve never seen anything like it. The Howard University bookstore had some black books but mainly textbooks. When I walked into Lewis Michaux’s bookstore and saw all these histories, biographies and autobiographies, fliers and posters, it was mind-blowing.” (96).

Wolf’s voices speak in poems. Some are letters and telegrams. Some are free-verse and could just as well be prose.  Some are free verse and let the poetry work for them, playing with imagery, slipping into concrete poetry, and even using lack of capitalization and punctuation to underline the lost voice of a toddler:

“the barber shop is a razor.

the barber

he wants to shave at papa’s mustache.

so i cry.

too many things are gone.

papa is a mustache.

and papa is pockets.

with biscuits. with bullets.

and a pistol. bang. bang.” (180).

Some (the iceberg) have actual rhyme schemes: “James Dobbins (last to die), not jumping clear, / while he himself Hail Marys and huzzahs, / is crushed by timbers as the people cheer.” (14).

What was the book’s intention and was it achieved?

Each author’s use of the documentary style lets the reader into history without letting history fade into the background. Unlike a historical novel, where a character just happens to be at the right historical place in the right historical time, whether by working for a famous historical figure or being the right age/sex to get drafted into war, in these books the characters are there because they already had a part to play, and that is being documented.  The narrative is helped by the leeway that fictional interpretation can give.

it’s the watch that ended the night! get it?? photo by flickr user digiblue

This is most apparent in The Watch that Ends the Night and less so in No Crystal Stair. Any filigree of yearning, ambition, light romance, or life that Wolf gives to his characters serves to make them mourned should they not survive the night. The book would be propelled by a sense of doom whatever Wolf did, but he plays it up in his poems, too, doling out foreshadowing judiciously like a stoker would manage the coals in the furnaces of the ship.  Wolf’s not playing around with any of the facts of what happened,  he’s using his poetic license to play with our emotions.  And in doing so, he’s making the facts stick.

No Crystal Stair is similarly researched and it includes historical asides, photographs, and news clippings.  Better that it does, because it’s telling a story that should be more widely known, but isn’t.  Earlier this year, the New York Daily News published an article about East Harlem getting its first bookstore.  It failed to mention Harlem’s original bookstore (located in the Mount Morris Historical District, as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), which was built and run by Lewis Michaux, despite much struggle on his part.

This was the National Memorial African Bookstore on West 125th Street. It was an institution dedicated to informing black people about their history and the works of their forebears and peers.  Malcolm X frequented it and spoke in front of it.  And it was eventually forced out of its home by developers. The story follows Michaux from his childhood, where he was outshone by his famous brother, a preacher, through his first idea of having a bookstore, through the long years of getting the project off the ground, to its success (leading to a thick FBI file on his activities which was forced to conclude that he was no threat to national security).

photo by flickr user aoyenda

Although Michaux and his family are sometimes not easy to like, he didn’t let anyone give him any guff and it’s plain to see that the man did admirable work and was an admirable person.  And boy, did he know how to speak in a memorable soundbite: “Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, theres gonna be no damn peace… nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it’s being chopped down.” (127).

Lewis Michaux was the great uncle of the author, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, who says that she “visited the store only once, when I was fourteen and, regretfully, didn’t realize the store’s significance until years after it had closed and my uncle had passed away” (166).  While Wolf’s research on the Titanic proved challenging because there was too much written on it too soon, allowing for a wealth of rumor, research on No Crystal Stair had the opposite challenge for Nelson, with “nonexistent and conflicting information complicat[ing] the project” (166).  It’s easy to see why Nelson turned to the format that makes up No Crystal Stair, leaving room in the imagination for what could not be verified in research.

However, the research she did do became marred, in my reading, when I found that one of the most affecting personal stories of a bookstore customer was revealed in the endnotes to be a full fabrication.  There was so much to be impressed by with the story of the bookstore that I found myself wishing that it had been left to stand on its own.  The extra story ended up feeling like too much manipulation, a failsafe in case the story couldn’t speak for itself.

Despite that small letdown, No Crystal Stair is a work that should be read and enjoyed by people who have an interest in the history of New York, bookstores, black power, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps stories, or any student that wants to have an especially interesting Black History Month research project. And The Watch That Ends the Night is a great suggestion to fans of the film Titanic, fans of stories in poems, or morbid-minded people who want to get a little weepy.  After these two reading experiences, I hope more authors explore the documentary novel as a form.

Readalikes

 

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village

Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. Robert Byrd

A Newbery Medal winner from 2008, this book uses poems to illuminate the world of medieval England, using 22 distinct voices.

Crossing Stones

Helen Frost

Helen Frost is the MASTER of the novel in poetic voice. This particular book is set during World War I in the American heartland, and has four main characters who do the speaking. Its poems are deceptively straightforward, but trust me, don’t skip the explanation of their structure at the end.

World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

So, this is a history of things that have never happened.  But it sounds just like what oral histories sound like – a little dry, but exciting because it really happened (please read some Studs Terkel if you don’t know what I’m talking about)! Only this never happened. But there are zombies!

Disclosures & Digressions

I wish there were more R. Gregory Christie illustrations in No Crystal Stair, and more Jon Klassen in The Watch That Ends the Night.  Illustrations 4-evah!!!

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