Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: One-Off Fantasy/Magical Adventures

by Tessa

Read about the whys of this series here.

Possibly my favorite genre of comics, and one of the larger lists to be culled from the nominations this year – graphic works are suited for describing the fantastic if done well, and there’s a lot of fun and variety in these selections, so if yo u find your attention waning partway through, please take a break and come back to appreciate the back end of the list with fresh eyes.

singnoevil

Sing No Evil

JP Ahonen, writer

KP Alare, artist

Abrams

Anticipation/Expectation level: Another one I’m on hold for – excited to read this! Although the comics I’ve read about people in bands are usually disappointing, this one looks like it could be fun.

Art Taste:

singnoevilpreview

giganticbeard

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

Stephen Collins, writer and artist

Picador

Anticipation/Expectation level: Based on the title, pretty high?

My Reality: It’s one of those gentle stunners of a book that is somewhere closer to adult picture book on the graphic novel spectrum. A fable-like story about an island named here where everything is in its place, surrounded by a sea that leads to There, an unknown place of frightening chaos. An inhabitant of the island has one hair on his chin that goes haywire, causing problems for all of the island’s society and culture.

The text is gentle, with a sure tone and an almost-rhyming feel. It is very rhythmic and I sang part of it to my cats as part of their integration therapy. The art is penciled, with a sense of lighting that adds to the otherworldliness and gravity of the story. Collins balances the softness of his pencils and the lulling of his words with the helplessness of the unknown that lurks beneath both. It is a treat.

Will teens like it?: Yes, it doesn’t have an immediate hook apart from the great title, but it’s not hard to get into and provides its own rewards.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes – much like The Arrival, this is the kind of book that isn’t marketed towards teens but would be great to use in a book club, to introduce to an arts loving teenager or foist upon a book club with success, because there’s not really an impediment to getting something from it other than the thought that it might not be like what one is used to reading.

Art Taste:

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

BUZZV1_-_4x6_COMP_FNL_WEB_large

Buzz!

Ananth Panagariya, writer

Tessa Stone, artist

Oni Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: It looked fun, but I knew nothing of it going in. I like the name Tessa.

My Reality: Like Hicks’ and Shen’s Nothing Can Possibly Go WrongBuzz! is a solid entry into the teen high school slightly off adventure comic market. It’s easy to pick up off the shelf and recommend because it’s a new concept (underground spelling bees) running on standard tropes (outsiders who used to be insiders take on powerful conglomerate with the help of a talented newbie, betrayal from sort of within happens). And there’s nothing that is objectionable unless you object to a hint of magic. The action starts quickly and escalates quickly and the art is dynamic, hitting a spot between Faith Erin Hicks and Brian Lee O’Malley (as does the tone of the story). In short: fun.

For me, the action was a bit too quick and I never felt any resonance with the characters or their struggles, everyone was a bit too blithe. However, I don’t really count my feelings as meaning much because I’m not the ideal audience for this book. I don’t think it’s meant to be resonant, and I don’t think it has to be to be a successful comic. In fact, as a teen services librarian I wish for more of these fun, one-off books for my shelves.

Will teens like it?: Yes.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

buzz_panels

breathofbones

Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem

Steve Niles and Matt Santoro, writers

Dave Wachter, artist

Dark Horse

Anticipation/Expectation level: I’v always been a fan of golems.  I was interested to see what this book would do to distinguish itself in the saturated WWII market. (Pretty sure there are even already books about golems in WWII).

My Reality: A straightforward tale, as far as a tale about using a Golem against Nazis goes. A boy loses his father to World War… One, I think. Or two. Anyway, enough time that he grows up a bit in between. He’s waiting in a small village with his grandfather and other elderly people, all Jewish or mostly Jewish. He’s still waiting when a plane crashes outside of town. This is bad, because it is an Allied pilot who will bring scrutiny from Nazis. There is barely enough time to flee, so his grandfather entrusts  him with the secret of golem-making, and makes a Golem.

In keeping with the folsky, mythical vibe of the Golem, the tale is focused on the elemental parts of the story: good over evil, nobility over greed, sons discovering their strength in the absence of fathers and father figures. The Golem itself is elemental: the protection of earth and faith. The historical detail of the story adds another layer of pathos and dignity. And the art is gorgeous: detailed, black and white with a nice flowing sense of space and shadow, highlighted by brushy washes of grey and black. Unfortunately, by focusing on the elemental parts of the story, the story ends up being kind of forgettable. It’s evocative during reading, but might fade from the mind over time, merging with other golems or other WWII tales.

Will teens like it?: I can see some teens liking it.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s good. I don’t know if it crosses over to great. For teens. But I bet someone else could argue it.

Art Taste:

bobtag1p3

lilychen

The Undertaking of Lily Chen

Danica Novgorodoff, writer and artist

First Second

Anticipation/Expectation level: High, because I read Slow Storm and Refresh, RefreshI loved those books and was excited to read a longer work with a more clearly defined plot from Novgorodoff.

My Reality: If The Undertaking of Lily Chen were a movie it would be a fast talking movie in the mold of 30s and 40s flicks and it would be a farce, only set in China and having to do with a less-loved son finding a corpse to bury with his dead, too-venerated older brother. It’s a strange mix but one that works – Novgorodoff is good at finding the groove in uneasiness.

The main story is a chase/road trip type format, with Deshi Li dealing with the abrupt and violent end of his brother (by his hands), his place within his family, and his desperation to find a corpse or someone to murder to become a corpse bride. He runs into Lily Chen, who is brassy and adventurous in contrast to Deshi’s sad and anxious mode. She is trying to get to Shanghai from the poor countryside by any means possible. She becomes Deshi’s target and companion. The story, as it is, is not the strongest part of the book. The central idea of the ghost marriage as an impetus is interesting, but not enough to sustain the whole book – that would fall on Deshi’s shoulders, and he never really proves himself as a main character. Lily, being the titular character and the more naturally active person, is compelling, but so concerned with her movement away from her past that it’s hard to admire more than her gumption.

What really pulls everything together is the art. Sweeping, melancholy vistas of mountains. Twlight and dawn-light. Out of body experiences. Novgorodoff mixes delicate watercolors with pen-line shadows and outlined characters, the exaggerated with the realistic, creating a world slightly beyond the real.

Will teens like it?: Yes. It’s intriguing and well-paced.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes  – the shortcomings of the characterization are balanced out by the art and themes that emerge near the end.

Art Taste:

lilychen lilychen2

MoonheadCoverFull

Moonhead and the Music Machine

Andrew Rae, writer and artist

Nobrow Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: I like Nobrow.

My Reality: This hit all the sweet spots for me. Palpable depictions of awkwardness that lead to heartwarming scenes of celebration of being weird. Joey Moonhead has a moon for a head. No one talks about it, but he and his family are the only ones who are visibly different from all the other humanoids. Joey is out of it and kind of shy, but he wants to build a music machine for a talent show. His first attempt is pitiful but he is discovered by a new friend – a ghost-person, dresssed in a sheet, who is kind of a musical genius, and he blows off his long time buddy to pursue the dream.  I found it to be relatable, a story that has been told, but a heartfelt, personal take on it that works. Rae’s art is all clear lines with a great sense of storytelling beats through the pacing of the panels. And he draws great creatures.

Will teens like it?: Teens might think it’s too weird or off their usual path, but I bet they would like it if they gave it a chance. Or they might think its message is too simple.

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

Art Taste:

Moonhead_Page14-600x402

moonheadpreview

downsetfightcover

Down Set Fight!

Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, writers

Scott Kowalchuk, artist

Oni Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: Verging from neutral to vaguely wary about sports content.

My Reality: Down Set Fight! is unapologetically a book about fighting. To be specific, it’s about a football player who is most famous for fighting on field and has abandoned his career and aged into being a high school coach. Until mascots start seeking him out to fight him. (There’s also a back story with his sleazy dad.) The fun the writers had dreaming up the mascots is readily apparent, and although there’s a mystery element to the plot, it is really all about Chuck fighting mascots and figuring out why they want to fight him. It’s all done with a sense of whimsy and over-the-top violence that isn’t gruesome or realistic in anyway, and I admire that.

Will teens like it?: You could sell this to a teen.

Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t know if it’s great. I’m on the fence.

Art Taste:

pachyderms

BEAUT_DARK_cover-full

Beautiful Darkness

Fabien Vehlmann, writer

Kerascoët, artists

Drawn & Quarterly

Anticipation/Expectation level: Read a preview of this last year and really, really wanted to read it.

My Reality: Possibly one of the best books I’ve read, period. It is beautiful and terrible – terrible in the sense of being deeply frightening. Or maybe the right word is horror, or is there a word of witnessing the consequences of bad decisions or acts of god(s) and being struck by the impassive blankness of nature? It’s that. There are very visceral moments in here that will stay with a person.

So, the book is about these tiny fairy-ish people who emerge from the body of a dead girl in a forest. It’s not clear who they are or how they ended up in the body but they now have to survive in the forest. Some are oblivious to the dangers, some scheme to get power, some try to help out, some go out on their own. The team of Kerascoët is the perfect choice to illustrate this world, with their sure, delicate pen lines and richly colored, realistic backgrounds.

Why should I say more when you could be reading this book?

Will teens like it?: Yes. It might scar younger readers, but will also fascinate them.

Is it “great” for teens?: I mean… it’s great.

Art Taste:

BEAUTIFUL-pg61-817c1

Reading the Great Graphic Novels 2015 nominations: a hidden Holocaust story, an American dust bowl, tragic trenches, and a controversial birth control crusader

by Tessa

Read about the reasons for this series of posts here.

Sometimes I think reluctance to read about history or historical fiction is that it takes a bit more effort to get into the world (same with sci-fi). Comics that deal with historical events do a lot of the work for you, adding in the dress and buildings of the time. Which leaves you to drink it in and emotionally connect. Since I had a backlog of titles to talk about, I’ve been able to separate them into genres for these posts, and this is a post about comics wtih historical themes.

hidden

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust

Loïc Dauvillier, writer

Marc Lizano, artist

Greg Salsedo, artist

First Second

 

Anticipation/expectation level: None. I’d skimmed some positive reviews. I liked the cover design.

My Reality: Hidden is a deftly done look at the Holocaust for younger readers. A small girl learns about what happened via her grandmother, Dounia, who was so young herself during the War that at first her parents don’t even tell her what the Star of David is meant to signify when the Jews are forced to wear it – she thinks she’s a tiny Sherriff. If that sounds too cutesy, don’t worry. Hidden walks the line between gentle and real. Dounia goes through a heartwrenching separation from her parents, and the stakes are high for her throughout the war, but she doesn’t have to survive the concentration camps, and she does get a happy ending. The fact that she’s telling her story for the first time to her granddaughter adds an extra emotional layer. The art has that Bande Dessinee feel to it (I will get better at describing this but not today) in its detailed backgrounds and muted color pallette, but the characters are simply designed, which may lead to confusion in younger readers who can’t tell all the adults apart .

Will teens like it?: I think this is geared much younger. Readers are meant to identify with the granddaughter and Dounia, and they can’t be more than almost tweenage.  Teens can definitely enjoy it, but I wouldn’t say it’s for them.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s great, but teens are ready for a harder look at this time period.

Art Taste:

a page from Hidden, via Haaretz

a page from Hidden, via Haaretz

 

greatamericandustbowl

The Great American Dust Bowl

Don Brown, writer and illustrator

Houghton Mifflin

Anticipation/expectation level: Again, great cover design.

My Reality: This book is great! It’s small (but tall) and retains the air of a picture book, in the deceptive way that Raymond Briggs’ books can. Brown uses the page to emphasize the immensity of the environment in western America, the small person constantly in comparison with the huge sky, the stretching dirt vistas, and the towering clouds of grit that would more and more frequently come to destroy homes and lives, or at least make them a daily struggle. Brown takes us through the facts of the situation, including quotes from people who lived through it, inserted into text bubbles from his drawn characters. I find it hard to imagine reading this book and not wanting to know more.

Will Teens like it?: If someone pushes them to read it.

Is it “great” for teens?: Oh yes.

Art Taste:

DustForBlogSlide

treatiestrencheshale

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood

Nathan Hale

Amulet Books

Anticipation/expectation level: HIGH. I have read and cherished the reading experience of each book in this series: One Dead Spy  (American Revolution), Big Bad Ironclad (Monitor and Merrimack (why isn’t that a rap duo yet)), and Donner Dinner Party (cannibalism frontier tragedy).

My Reality: I dunno, this might be the best one yet. I have read about World War I in the context of history, art history, English Literature, and War Movies, I knew that it basically shocked Western Civilization to the core, but I have never encountered a book that got through to me exactly how and why it was so shocking and stupid and a waste of life.

If you haven’t read a Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales book before, the premise is that Nathan Hale, Revolutionary patriot/spy is on the gallows. He utters his famous last words: “I only regret that I have one life to lose for my country,” and they are so historic that the gallows become a history book, snap him up, give him knowledge of the future, and spit him out. He then drags out the time before his execution explaining historical events to the dumb, always hungry executioner and the arrogant British soldier.

The books are packed with small panels, done in 2 or 3 colors, very factual but also very funny.

 

World War I is a huge subject, and much bigger of a focus than any of the other books in the series, but Hale makes it work by casting countries as representative animals (like Maus, but with less psychological weight to the animals) and making good use of maps. Each section of the book opens with a representation of the war as a hungry mechanical Ares, that gets increasingly scary and full of bloodlust as the book goes along:

1018140833a

 

It’s very effective.

Will teens like it?:  I think so. I should foist some on some teens.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes. It’s great for adults, too. And I think it’s marketed to younger ones.

Art Taste: see above for my stunning cell phone pics.

womanrebelbagge

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

Peter Bagge, writer and illustrator

Drawn & Quarterly

Anticipation/expectation level: Low. In my time during grad school I somehow managed to pick up the ONE BOOK in Pitt’s library about birth control/obscenity laws that was not pro-Sanger or directly about Sanger (for some light reading? I can’t remember). It’s called The Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett’s Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education by Constance M. Chen, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only book of its kind because I spent a lot of time tracking it down by finding the correct subject headings and doing many searches in Pitt’s library catalog. This was before I had Goodreads aka the Dark Ages. ANYWAY. Mary Ware Dennett did some pretty rad things for women and birth control information dissemination, and Margaret Sanger was threatened and made jealous by it, according to Chen, who sees Sanger as more focused on the press than reform.  Sanger doesn’t come off too well in the book — here’s one choice description: “Like other unthinking people, whether liberal or conservative, Sanger was myopic and intolerant.” (162). Chen’s low opinion was convincing, so much so that that is almost the only thing I remember about the book lo these years later, even though the book is about a whole other person. (Seems like Margaret Sanger had that effect on people for most of her life.)

On the other hand, that is one side of the story. A side with research to back it up: Sanger was intolerant. For instance,  a reader of the NY Times wrote the paper in response to a review of Sanger’s life to note that in”her 1926 Vassar College graduation address, entitled “The Function of Sterilization.” Sanger praised the infamous anti-Semitic and anti-Italian Immigration Act of 1924, which she said had “taken . . . steps to control the quality of our population. . . . While we close the gates to the so-called ‘undesirables’ from other countries, we make no attempt to cut down the rapid multiplication of the unfit and undesirable at home.”

But she also had a really interesting life, one that was recently touched upon in an excerpt of Jill Lepore’s new book on Wonder Woman, published in the New Yorker. In it, Sanger’s unusual marriage situation is discussed – it was an open arrangement. So I was interested to read a book about her and get a better view of her.

My Reality: I wish that this book had provided a better view of Margaret Sanger. I realize that Peter Bagge deals in hyperbole and grotesque figures, and this could work with Sanger, who was a sensationalized figure and used it to her advantage in pushing her agenda forward. I don’t think his drawing style worked to the advantage of the book. When it comes to real people in a comic book, they can be drawn without a slavish devotion to realism, but the way Sanger and her contemporaries are drawn leaves little to their characters but big gestural emotions – either bug eyed and gape mouthed or glaring and growling, with a pace that sets Sanger continually clomping from one place to another, one bed to another, and one year to another with no time for the reader to catch their breath or find their place in the story.

Bagge works in roughly chronological order, stringing together important scenes from Sanger’s life. We see some of her personal experiences that he uses to show her opinions being crystallized, and we see more public moments in her life, where Sanger is speaking and fighting entrenched ideas about women, and we see personal anecdotes that show her as a woman with radical sexual ideas. I didn’t get a great sense of context, of who else worked in the movement and helped Sanger, or even of personal growth. Sanger as a character here comes pretty much intact, only gaining the confidence she needs to speak out and make her voice be heard. The way she is drawn and written makes her one-sided. And that’s fine. History needs people willing to be assholes sometimes, especially when the culture is an asshole to you. But I wouldn’t call this a nuanced portrait of an asshole. It’s very frenetic, bombastic, and jumpy, leaving me with a mish-mash of impressions of Sanger giving eye-daggers to one and all. I’d probably gain more respect for Sanger from other sources and learn more about the movements she helped start or continue.

Will Teens like it?: It’s attention catching enough that teens into social justice or social movements could be attracted to it.

Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t think that this covers the bases that I want to be covered with a historical biography, so no.

Art Taste:

WOMANREBEL-bagge38

And, the real Margaret Sanger:

sanger

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