Category Archives: Graphic Novels

The Dark Side of the Bookmobile

I was intrigued by the premise of The Night Bookmobile, a graphic novel composed by Audrey Niffenegger (of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry Fame), which I read about in the New York Times last Friday. The Times listed The Night Bookmobile as one of the best graphic novels of 2010, “about a woman who stumbles upon an old Winnebago filled with everything she has ever read. The volumes conjure long-forgotten memories … that are sure to be echoed by readers when they ruminate on their own experiences with books.”  Yes!  It echoed all right — I thought of my year of reading one book a day, a year that not only brought me new reading experiences but allowed me to recover so many memories of a life punctuated by books.  I turned to books when sorrow became too heavy and too constant a burden and reading allowed me once again to see the wonder and beauty in life.

But The Night Bookmobile is not about the rejuvenating power of books.  It is instead a marvelously rich and harrowing visit to the dark side of books’  encompassing power of enchantment, where one woman’s relationships with the books she has read becomes more important than any other experience in her life. Her books become so paramount that she is willing to give up anything to be with them, in the bookmobile, always and forever.  But in a clever and unforeseen twist of Niffenegger’s writing and drawing wrist, the woman’s final effort to ensure a guaranteed furlough with her books doesn’t quite work out as planned.

Chilling in its conclusion, I wasn’t sure whether to take The Night Bookmobile as a warning or as a promise. A warning against letting books rule your life (I can think of much worst taskmasters), or a promise that somewhere out there, such bookmobiles do exist.

In the afterword to the graphic novel, Niffenegger asks “What would you sacrifice to sit in that comfy chair with perfect light for an afternoon … reading the perfect book?” The Night Bookmobile will make you think very hard before answering her question.

The Photographer, by Dider Lefevre and Emmanuel Guibert

The Photographer is an exploration of Afghanistan in the 1980s, in the midst of the Russian war on Afghanistan and on the trail of Medecins Sans Frontieres, or as we Americans know them, Doctors Without Borders.  A young French photographer, Didier Lefevre, documented his trip with MSF, the humanitarian outfit that brings medical care to the farthest reaches and the bloodiest conflicts, offering help to civilians caught in the middle of brutal war.

Together with Lefevre’s photos and his narrative (translated by Alexis Segal) and accompanied by the drawings of Emmanuel Guibert (assisted by Frederic Lemercier) this photo/graphic novel is a deeply moving homage to the low-key but bone-deep bravery of the doctors and staff of MSF/Doctors Without Borders.  It is also an entrancing portrait of Afghanistan, a country of beauty, suffering, and endurance.  The Photographer brings to life the doctors, the people they treat, and the many Afghans who offer assistance, kindness, and diversion from the often grim and hopeless task of helping civilians injured in war.  Lefevre’s photos range from minute to majestic, from mundane to exquisite, but are always perfect in-the-moment illustrations of where he, the photographer, found himself, both physically and soulfully, in Afghanistan.  We are brought along through the photos and through his simple accompanying text to the many encounters, feasts, and examinations, and deep into his moments of peace, hilarity, and sadness.

As yet another example of the power of the graphic novel, The Photographer is astounding; as a treatise on the potential reach of human goodness and bravery, it is inspiring.

Graphic Power

Two recently released graphic novels, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli andA.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld illustrate in very different ways the power and breadth of the Graphic Novel. Asterios Polyp also demonstrates the novelistic depth and rich beauty that the best of the genre can achieve, and will go on my top-ten list of books of 2009.  I will read Asterios Polyp over and over, for the beauty and variety of Mazzucchelli’s illustrations and for the sincerity and brilliance of his story.

Asterios Polyp tells the story of Asterios, scholar of architecture, dilettante in all matters philosophical, and epicurean of all matters involving taste, and his courtship and marriage to Hana, a sincere, self-effacing, and talented sculptress. Woven in with their story is the story of Asterios’ dead twin, still alive on many of the fabulously-drawn pages of this beautiful book, and the story of another marriage of opposites, that of mechanic Stiffly and his wife, Ursula Major.  Ursula is voluptuous in body, wit, intelligence, and delusions.  She was my favorite character in the book, the perfect foil and complement to the intelligent and self-important but also fragile Asterios.  With her attractive and formidable heft of conversation, empathy, and  love of life, she is sometimes another twin to Asterios, and at other times, his opposite.

The question of differences and of contrasts is one of several recurring and fully examined philosophical themes in the book. Mazzucchelli uses various frames of drawing and discussion to explore the idea that instead of yin and yang, there are shades of yin-ism and yang-ism.  Although using stark differences (absolutes of yin and yang) can illuminate traits of one character versus another (for example, Asterios and Hana), the true picture of humanity allows for shades of gray — or rather of radiant color — in all of us.  My clumsy effort to explain this theme as compared to Mazzucchelli’s lovely, haunting, and eminently comprehensible exposition of the same illustrates the power of the Graphic Novel to present rich ideas, at least when in the hands of a great talent like Mazzucchelli.

Mazzucchelli is also a great storyteller.  Asterios Polyp is a touching and sincere story of love, delusion, and recovery, and is as richly cast in supporting characters as it is with its original and yet familiar leads of Asterios, Hana, and Ursula. I read through the pages of Asterios Polyp mesmerized by the variety and skill of Mazzucchelli’s illustrations and amped up on his patient and vivid exploration of the basic human struggle for self-definition and self-realization against all the odds of life.

Josh Neufeld’s A.D: New Orleans After the Deluge, is more reportage than story-telling.  It is a non-fiction graphic novel, using the experiences of five people who went through Katrina to report on the horrors of the storm, the subsequent flooding, and the displacement, literal and figurative, of those affected.  All that is familiar, known, and secure to the five characters disappears, first in the catastrophe that is Katrina and then in the chaos that is the government’s nightmarish response to the storm and the flooding.  To say that the people of New Orleans were devastated, first by one then by the other, is an understatement.  Neufeld uses detailed cartooning to convey the stages of denial, realization, and despair that his five characters went through.  His close-ups of faces are especially striking for the fear, anger, and disbelief that show up, in different stages and states.  We cannot deny the faces nor the truth of what these very real people had to go through (and continue to go through) in a catastrophe begun by nature but completed by man.

Cancer Vanquished Graphically

Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto provides another stunning example of the power of the Graphic Novel.  I loved this book. Right up there with Stitches by David Small (reviewed on this blog) and the Persepolis books by Marjane Satrapi, Cancer Vixen conveys through vivid drawings, straightforward commentary, and genuine dialogue, the harsh experience of a very difficult situation — and makes all readers participants in the story.  I experienced cancer through my sister’s diagnosis, treatment, and death, but Cancer Vixen deepened my knowledge of  what is suffered, what is feared, and what is hoped for. As in Stitches and the Persepolis books, the story told is very personal and yet its ramifications are universal. Family dysfunction and political dysfunction are exposed in those books: Cancer Vixen exposes both the bland and the horrific aspects of cancer.

As in other graphic novels, many of Marchetto’s drawings involve faces looking straight at the reader and the dialogue is often directed towards the reader. The result is an engagement between the reader and the story that feels personal and also special, as if Marchetto is sharing an intimate confidence. It helps that Marchetto is a very likable person, a woman struggling to find her place in the world while also trying to have a good time, make a living, and be a decent person.  We like her and when she takes us in and makes us witness to the diagnosis of cancer and the aftermath of its treatment, we care; we care a lot.  Marchetto shares her story as a one-on-one conversation, a personal saga shared between two friends, and we are grateful for the conversation.

While providing details about diagnosis and treatment that illuminate the common experience of cancer, Marchetto also provides us with context of what having cancer meant to her personally through flashbacks to life “b.c.” (before cancer).  She offers up her history as a young, carefree, and skinny fashionista brought horribly down to earth by September 11th.  The World Trade Center destruction happened literally in her back yard and she recorded her personal experience of September 11th for Talk magazine.  Reproduced here, it is a heartbreaking recording of the horrors of that day. Three years later, when Marchetto is in love with a wonderful man and selling cartoons and happy again (although never happy-go-lucky again) cancer strikes.  Drawn as a skinny bitch in a gray hooded mantle, Cancer is death-come-calling but  Marchetto is determined to fight back, and fight hard.

Marchetto uses humor and bitter truth to illustrate, through both words and drawings, her experience of cancer, and it is a triumph when she succeeds in fighting back death.  There are costs to her battle (babies in the universe of her future disappear, one by one) but there are also lessons gained — and shared with us, her devoted confidants — about love, friendship, maintaining perspective, and never, ever taking anything for granted.

David Small: Stitches and Scars

If I could draw as well as David Small, I would draw this review of Stitches first as panels showing views of my face, with my jaw dropping further and further down, and a tear building slowly at each corner of my eyes. The final panel of the review would begin with me sitting with Small’s book on my lap, my mouth now closed tightly, my back rigid against the couch, my eyes open and staring off in the distance; then comes a sketch of my kids in the hall, calling “good night” as they head up the stairs to bed.  The final scene is of me rushing to gather them in my arms and assuring them  — their faces are bewildered, mine is wild with grief — that they are safe and they are loved.

Stitches, Small’s just released graphic novel memoir of his childhood, is a chilling depiction of the wounds and scars, literal and figurative, that are imposed on the young by their parents. The drawings are varied in style but consistent in effect, and the effect is an incisive, baring, and nowhere-to-hide exposure of pain. Small had no relief from the onslaught of his mother’s misery, his father’s failure, and his grandmother’s psychotic lunacy, no relief save the skills he had as an artist.  There is a wonderfully compelling sketch of the young Small diving into a drawing pad, being taken down through the page and into a world of his own creation, a world safe for being his own, and for being unreachable by his family.

There are many levels of horror in this book, the father who treats his son’s asthma with radiation, causing a cancer of the throat that takes away his son’s voice; the mother whose own health problems and sexual anguish make her mercurial and volatile, cold and uncaring; the grandmother whose psychosis vents on the visiting grandson without protection or shield; the reign of silence and barely-controlled anger in the household; the censure of books and thought and discussion; and the repression of the truth, including the truths of Small’s illness, the nature of the mother’s sexuality, and the state of the family unit. It is only when the teenaged Small begins to work with a therapist that a light of relief can be seen but first, the child must acknowledge the failure of the relationship between his mother and himself.

The scene of Small’s revelation is drawn in two parts: the announcement of the most awful of rejections, and then a tear falling down Small’s face followed by panel after panel of rain falling on scenes of Small’s Detroit landscape, rain rolling down the panes of windows, in puddles, over factories, against sliding glass doors of a patio, over a discarded lawn mower.  The effect is wrenching and undeniable sorrow.  There is another scene, earlier in the book, where Small wishes to respond to his parent’s haranguing with a scream: we see his mouth opened wide, with another mouth engulfed inside, and another mouth engulfed in that mouth, and so on, creating a series of opened, screaming mouths.  I could hear the anguish, I could feel the vibration of the cry, and chills ran down my spine.

I have read many of Small’s books for children, ones he wrote and illustrated and ones he illustrated only.  Of those books, I have read so many, many times over as they were my children’s favorites and my own.  Books like Imogene’s Antlers,The LibraryThe Christmas Crocodile, and Petey’s Bedtime Story are all-time favorites, ones I still read over by myself because I find pleasure and comfort in the drawings.  The way Small draws cats, all hunched up or stretched out, the details he puts in of small toys scattered around or of Christmas decorations hung over ornate fireplaces, the flowers he has cascading over fences and the books he stacks up every which way around chairs just made for reading: I can imagine myself very, very happy and safe in the spaces and landscapes Small created in his books for kids.  In Stitches there is no such comfort offered, despite the occasional cat sketched in and the ornate gingerbread house of witchy-grandma; the scenes are cold, the faces angry or scared, the landscape, interiors and exteriors, barren and bereft.

Stitches demonstrates, as did Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, that graphic expressions of truth can be as powerful as words.  In fact, experiences of vulnerability and youth, where the situation can be interpreted in a variety of ways and standpoints, can be most-effectively rendered visually, allowing the reader to experience first-hand what the narrator experienced, without being told what to feel by the words of the narrator’s experience. It is more powerful to see the eyes of Small’s mother narrow into slits of anger and hate than words might be able to convey, especially when Small places one of his own eyes as a mirror to one of his mother’s and we see the resemblance.  Seeing the two slitted eyes, side by side, we are shocked by the implication of heredity, of what is being passed on between son and mother, and it is not love, or acceptance: it is hate and anger.

That Small was able to overcome his childhood and become the artist that creates landscapes that are original, whimsical, fully-detailed, and most of all warm and comforting — full of love (really) — is amazing.  That he won the Caldecott Medal for So You Want to be President is inspiring: he was a boy who was denied so much and yet he became what he wanted to be, an artist.  The book is built on his own experience, and filled with his wonderful drawings of very human beings becoming President of the United States. Small’s books are proof that scars of pain, fear, and sorrow can be salved; they offer hope against very tough odds; and most of all, they are a testament to his resilience, determination, talent, and heart.

Stitches will go up there with Imogene’s Antlers as an all-time favorite Small, but not one I will share with my children (not yet, I’ll wait for them to grow up a bit).  I will most certainly share Stitches with my friends, many of them mothers, and all of us worth reminding of the power of family, and of the individual.

Pets with Man-Heads

Yesterday I read a collection of graphic short stories.  Almost like a comic book but not one I would let my kids near.  Petey and Pussy by John Kerschbaum is drawn to perfection, and the story lines are very funny and sometimes crude, sometimes cruel. I never quite knew what was coming in the three stories presented and when I found out, I laughed out loud.

Petey and Pussy are a dog and a cat; their bodies are drawn as dog and cat. It is their heads that will creep you out: each has the head of a balding man (and Pussy wears glasses).  And inside those heads are men also; selfish, boozing, but not quite despicable, men.  Men out to kill mice, torture birds, and eat food that has not gone up anyone’s private space.  So what saves them from utter despicability?  Their friendship with each other, the way they look out for the old lady in charge, and the way they help keep the local bar open (selfishly: the bartender gives them free drinks).

There is nothing awesome or brain-expanding about these well-drawn stories but they do provide some good and very gross fun.  Just keep them away, far away, from the kids.

Ronald Reagan: A Graphic History

I was in college when Ronald Reagan was elected president.  I was a freshman who voted in her first election and saw her chosen candidate lose, but I quickly got over it. I was excited to be where I was and I hunkered down to the studying as well as the partying.  When I looked up again, Reagan had changed America.  The first change I noticed was that from one year to the next, many of my friends did not return to college: financial aid had been cut and they could no longer afford the high tuition.  Students stopped dressing in sweatpants, and started wearing clothes more appropriate to the boardroom; law school and med school lost popularity to business school.

Other changes and events I read about and simmered over as the Reagan years marched on.  AIDs ravaged communities, crack became an epidemic,  Grenada was invaded, the military budget ballooned (with billions spent on the ridiculed Strategic Defense Initiative, i.e.,  Star Wars),  Iran-Contra was exposed, along with the shadowy outlines of Reagan’s role in selling arms to terrorists to fund the actions of more terrorists as well as right-wing death squads ,and a million people (Americans included) were killed in Middle East showdowns and blow ups, and in the Iran -Iraq war (the U.S.armed Iran and normalized relations with Iraq, selling weapons to both sides of the conflict). And through it all, the truth was not spun so much as hidden under layers and layers of tinseled and glossy lies.

When Reagan died in  2004 the nation went into a paroxysm of mourning. He was deemed hero,  honest cowboy, the common soul on the side of the powerless. The facts of the Reagan years were forgotten in the flurry of photogenic images of the strong, broad- shouldered man who brought down the Berlin Wall and Communism and got rid of those welfare mothers too.

The graphic novel Ronald Reagan (published in 2007) written by Andrew Helfer and illustrated by a team including Steve Buccelato and Joe Staton does an extraordinary job of telling the full story of Ronald Reagan, from birth to death. Relying on the extensive research and publications of historians Gary Wills, Lou Gannon, and Edmund Morris, as well as Reagan’s own autobiographies,  Heller and his illustrators show us the Reagan who from very early on was a master of presentation.  He gave his audiences in performance after performance, and speech after speech (THE speech that he used for years, altered slightly for the circumstances) a surface of trustworthy competence and honest goodness.  Reagan’s personage could shine so brilliantly it blinded.

Ronald Reagan gets underneath the surface of the man and shows us Reagan’s habits of altering the truth and forgetting it altogether when that was convenient,  and of switching loyalties and making hidden agreements.  I never thought I’d feel sorry for McFarlane when his role in the Iran-Contra affair came out, but I did: when Reagan took no responsibility for the activities, selling McFarlane down the river. McFarlane attempted suicide as a result of the betrayal by one whom he thought was “the Administration’s last honest man, a hero, and patriot.

Reagan relied on superstition and hoodoo rather than knowledge to make decisions, having no deep knowledge of presidential issues but relying instead on cue cards and sidekicks.  Sidekicks like David Stockman who made up Reaganomics and later stated that “supply-side economics was an effort to reduce taxes for the rich.” He’d cooked the numbers to “make them look rosy for the rest of those country.

Everyone from middle-school age on up  should and can read this book.  It is extremely engaging and readable, and well-illustrated.  And after reading the book, everyone should consider what it is we need from our political leaders.  Do we need a good act?  Or should we demand substance of our politicians?  Do we accept that the ends justify the means; that weakening communism or preventing a terrorist attack warrant whatever measures necessary, legal or not?  Let’s debate these questions now, and support leaders who will participate in the discussion, who are willing  to stand up and take open responsibility for their words and actions, leaders who do not act covertly, and leaders who understand that lying means the truth has not been told — and it is the truth we demand.

Watchmen: Tragically Graphic

Yesterday I read Watchmen, a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated/lettered by Dave Gibbons in 1986, 1987.  This book won numerous awards, including being named one of the 100 best novels by Time magazine.  Hun?  I don’t get it.  The story is sadistic and juvenile (assuming the juvenile is a psychotic egomaniac) and not that interesting.  The drawings are very graphic and just plain ugly.  The interspersed pages of dense and boring text don’t help.  Any rush from reading this book comes from the  same guilt-inducing prurient interests one might indulge when reading the grimmest of the grim stories in the crummiest of newspapers.  And talk about stereotypes!  The tough tart with a heart of gold (two actually, the mother and the daughter, wow!), the abused child who seeks righteous vengeance; the newspaper seller who just wants to connect; the older man in crisis because his past job just didn’t work out for him and now he’s impotent but hey, get back on the saddle and truth will come; the crazed and superintelligent egomaniac who fools (almost) everyone.  There is the wonderful character of the blue and naked Dr. Manhattan: who gets to play him in the upcoming movie?  By the way, do not let your kids read this book or see the movie (if it is like the book; it’s due out in March 2009) unless you are prepared to discuss (and I would argue, refute) the utterly nihilistic portrayal of humanity in this book.