November 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Is drama club the first time in your school years that you are really given a free pass to let your freak flag fly? That may well be the case. It’s certainly, for many kids, the first en counter with a creative community and one filled with difference that needs to work together. I think that may be why the arts is filled with liberals: To get anything done, tolerance of difference is a mandatory attitude to have or the show does not go on.
With “Drama,” Telgemeier fol lows up her fantastic “Smile” with another tale of that awkward age when difference is inevitable and challenges negotiation on the part of the people ex periencing, specifically middle school students who aren’t quite kids, are just on the cusp of teen ager-dom and only now really not only figuring themselves out, but figuring out what their personal feelings and quirks means in context of other people.
In “Drama,” theater geek Callie gets a big opportunity to design sets for her middle school production of “Moon Over Mississippi.” Not only does she need to move past the dream-come-true momentum and actually learn the craft of making sets on a tiny budget, she also has to negotiate the dynamics of a close-knit, sometimes demanding, group. Of course there are boy problems, but their complexity heralds in the adult world yet to come, and Callie must figure out how to juggle figuring out individual personalities with figuring out creative fabrication, all the while learning to exhale.
What’s great about Telge mei er is her ability to address the con cerns of the age she targets without condescension or even the hint of knowing more than them, and that’s probably be cause she’s pulling from her own experiences. Her voice is an honest one and never pander ing, valuable and em powering to the kids who might find themselves at the very crossroads Telgemeier’s stories portray.
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The Beatles are so ubiquitous in world culture, so a part of the aural landscape, that as we move closer and closer to a reality with no memory of a world before their existence and influence, it becomes even more important to remember that these were not gods, but men like all of us.
That’s the biggest value in a book like “Baby’s In Black,” which brings forth their humanity not only by relating their early years performing in Germany, but to also relegating them to supporting players in other people’s dramas.
Those people are Astrid Kirchherr and her boyfriend, Stuart Sutcliffe, the famous “lost Beatle,” who walked away from the band in order to pursue his true passion, painting.
Anyone who already knows how this story turns out also knows that Sutcliffe made the right choice, but not for especially feel-good reasons, and this gets to the core of why the story is worth telling.
It’s 1960 and the Beatles are slogging through the club scene in Berlin, living in a room together and constantly trying to figure out how to better their future as a band. It’s in this scenario that Kirchherr, a photographer, and Sutcliffe meet, fall in love and plan a future for each other as Sutcliffe struggles with his creative calling, as well as his health.
German cartoonist Bellstorff brings a flavor to the work that no English or American creator approaching the Beatles really could. His almost Manga-lie, charcoal black renderings evoke a time and a place that are as important as the players in the drama. It frames the Beatles squarely in the world they walked at a distance from whatever legends have been added to their biography. It’s an art gallery-laden Berlin filled with beatniks and intellectuals, and the Beatles are presented not at the center of a scene, but as part of it.
With a German point of view so integral, as much focus is given to Klaus Voormann as any actual Beatle. Voormann was a friend of Kirchherr who became integral in Beatles lore, among other things becoming part of the Plastic Ono Band. Voormann did many things beyond the Beatles as well, including producing the ‘80s mega-hit by Trio, “Da, Da, Da” and creating album graphics for the Bee Gees.
It’s the inclusion of Voormann in the narrative that really frames Bellstorff’s vantage point in regard to the less-celebrated role Berlin played in the story of the Beatles.
At center, though, it is about the love story between Kirchherr and Sutcliffe, and that is both sweet and heart-breaking. Sutcliffe’s short time on this earth at least offers one lesson that any of us can take to heart — be true to yourself. You never know when your opportunity to do so will cease, and there’s no point pushing it off until tomorrow, since there may not actually be one. It’s a simple moral, but one that too many people forget on a daily basis.
March 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Toon Books has become renowned for their approach to children’s books, mixing an exact educational plan reminiscent of Golden Books with sequential story telling styles — that is, comic books, which has largely existed alongside the children’s book world as a parallel universe, or perhaps red-headed step child. Still under the editorial direction of New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly though now an imprint of Candlewick, the company has specialized in books steeped with humor and whimsy. With “The Shark King,” though, Toon Books breaks new ground.
Culled from a Hawaiian folk tale, “The Shark King” follows the story of Kalei, who falls in love with a mysterious man and bears his equally mysterious child named Nanaue. When fish become scarce and the people in the nearby village begin to starve, it is Nanaue who becomes the likely culprit in their eyes.
“The Shark King” is a darker-toned story than any Toon Book before — a drama that, while it has its amusing, lighter moments, goes to areas that aren’t often seen in children’s books as they exist in 2012. Abandonment, fear of the unknown, prejudice, alienation, these are all nestled within the subtext of the myth.
In the hands of writer/illustrator, R. Kikuo Johnson — a native of Maui — “The Shark King” is neither gloomy, nor, like adaptations of mythology can often be, stiff. Instead Johnson pulls from his own experience on the island as a child, and gives the myth a vitality that makes it seem alive. Mixed with his bold visual style — heavy-lined and evocatively colored — “The Shark King” stands out as a work of depth that will challenge your seven or eight year old with rich themes and may possibly invite them back for repeated investigations of the mysteries within.
December 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Cartoonist Melissa Mendes’ new book, “Freddy Stories,” mixes autobiography with the history of children’s comics as a springboard to a promising future.
The Hancock native’s book stands as the end result of a five-year process, beginning with the creation of the character Freddy, who takes her through her college years and into her professional life across New England. Mendes attended Hampshire College in Amherst, then graduate school at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. After that, she lived in Providence, R.I., before returning to her hometown.
Mendes was reading a lot of Little Lulu when she came up with Freddy, who always seems to wear a red hoodie — Mendes says she practically lives in hoodies, and so Freddy reflects that obsession. The tone of the comic echoes Mendes’ mid-30s comics creation, but unlike Little Lulu, is definitely a modern girl. Mendes’ book takes the reader through the divorce of Freddy’s parents and overnights with gruff bachelor Uncle Sully, among other scenarios.
“When I first drew her at Hampshire, she was totally silent; she never said anything. She didn’t have a name either,” Mendes said. “She had an imaginary friend, and she was like a vessel for me to write stories that are sort of about my childhood. The first story I did was about her parents getting divorced, and now her Uncle Sully is based on my grandfather.”
Freddy was given a more urban environment to grow up in than Hancock, and that was just the beginning to her taking on her own life in conjunction with the one Mendes had offered her.
“She evolved from being this silent, nameless character into having her own personality and being this more rambunctious kid and having a dog,” Mendes said.
Some people get into comics because they are surrounded by the form as a kid, but Mendes is almost the exact opposite. She says that comics just eventually found her.
“When I was a kid, I was always really into ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ ” she said. “I never read superhero comics. I read some ‘Archie.’ I drew a lot, but I was more of a writer. But I really loved drawing.”
She focused on drawing all through high school, but for college, she decided to pursue linguistics, which did not work out for her.
Mendes had a lot of interest in comics, but found that it wasn’t one she could share with many people at Hampshire. She started a comics club to try and spark an interest, but there weren’t many people taking the bait.
There was one academic turning point, though. In a class on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, students were asked to write a paper about a conversation between the two as a way to illustrate their views. Mendes got permission to do it as a comic instead.
“I just drew these shapes talking, and I realized that was how I made sense of things: by drawing them,” she said. “I guess comics, to me, are a combination of my interests in language and art.”
Her senior thesis at Hampshire was a comic that featured Freddy. Even with these events lining up, Mendes still hadn’t made the decision to pursue cartooning and was even considering going into an education program for her future. An ex-boyfriend sent her a newspaper clipping about the Center for Cartoon Studies and it immediately intrigued her. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually exist yet.
“I emailed Michelle Ollie, who’s the president there, and asked if they needed an intern, and she said ‘sure,’ ” Mendes said. “I was one of the first interns, but there was nothing there yet, so mostly I painted things and babysat for people, but it was really great.”
Following that, Mendes decided the two-year program at CCS was something she should pursue, and that is what moved her into the realistic direction of wanting to pursue cartooning as a profession.
“I didn’t seriously think that I wanted to be a published comic artist until I made the decision to go to CCS and so before that, I was just doing my own thing.”
The school introduced her to many aspects of the industry, including the well-known mainstay, the comic book convention. To the outside world, comic book conventions might just look like a place where people go to buy merchandise and get books signed.
But in the comics world, they are the epicenter of networking, where publishers meet new talent, where outside of their studios, creators connect with other creators, and where older professionals find opportunities to mentor newcomers. They are the social and business center of the comics world.
The focus of the two-year program, though, is learning the hard grind of how to create comics as your job.
“The first year is really intensive, just churning out work,” Mendes said, “but it was really hard and really good. It’s like you have to be self-motivated, and you get what you put in.
“Before I went to CCS, I was more interested in education, but what it gave me was selfconfidence in my own work and helped me realize that I could draw comics and make stories, and that’s what I wanted to do.” One of the biggest differences from the Hampshire experience was the critical mass of other people interested in cartooning and working in the field, that was at her social and educational disposal.
“I think a big part of that was the community of it and going to conventions — my classmates all being really talented cartoonists. We had a visiting artist every week and meeting professional cartoonists and being surrounded by it is really great.”
It was during her time at the CCS Mendes first applied for the Xeric Grant, a prestigious award to help newcomers in the field self-publish their work.
Though the traditional publishing world is beginning to catch up with this mentality in the digital age, in the comic book industry, self-publishing is anything but a signpost for marginalization — it’s encouraged and respected and often the breeding ground for much of the avant garde and intellectual work in the form.
“This was the second time I applied,” Mendes said. “The first was with my senior thesis project at Hampshire, which wasn’t completely finished, and I didn’t get the grant then. I think that’s why, for this time around, I just redrew the two mini comics that I had done about Freddy, and I presented that as the finished book, put all together with a cover. But the actual final result is twice as long as what I applied with.” Mendes graduated in the summer of 2010 and set to the final phase of finishing up “Freddy Stories” for the eventual publication. This process would take another year and be juggled with a so-called real life and a graphic design job in Providence.
After the book was published in the fall, Mendes realized that it was no time to take a breath. She needed to figure out what was next for her, what she actually wanted to do now that Freddy was accomplished. “I think I got stuck for a little while,” she said. “I was still doing stuff and I had to finish the book when I was in Providence, but, a lot of people have that experience after grad school. I’m just now starting to get back into making work and being more serious about it.”
The answer to her questions have involved multiple forms of investigation. She’s been creating clay figures of her characters and selling them. She also started doing a regular Freddy web comic in order to experiment and expand into color work, as well as feel out the notion of syndicating a strip.
She also hasn’t given up on the education world. She has done — and hopes to expand upon — part-time library workshops for kids and teens, teaching them how to do comics.
Like working on Freddy, settling into the world of comics has been a journey from which Mendes pulls lessons of selfsufficiency and creativity.
“So far, it’s been pretty good,” she said. “At least I don’t have to have a day job right now.”
November 10, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Such a simple concept, but with complicated results, all positive, “Nurse Rhyme Comics” is exactly what it says it is. That title might be an acceptable way of presenting what sort of material is contained within, but the level of the contributors is another thing entirely, and what they add to such brief and well-trod material shows clearly why they are at the top of their game.
Compiler Duffy has fashioned the sort of multi-faceted collection that finds alternative cartoonist Lille Carre lending a primitive version of her creepy style to “Song A Song of Sixpence” alongside Jules Feiffer’s frantic “Girls and Boys Come Out Play.” Hellboy creator Mike Mignola grimly realizes “Solomon Grundy,” while the always delightful Sara Varon imbues “Mary Had A Little Lamb” with a quirky sweetness.
Other highlights include Gilbert Hernandez’s “Humpty Dumpty,” David McCaulay’s “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” James Sturm’s “Jack Be Nimble” and Marc Rosenthal’s “Yon Yonson,” which is re-imagined as a tour de force of meta-absurdism.
The idea is to reframe these classics by offering them personalities and narratives that speak to a modern kid, particularly a funky one. Nursery rhymes don’t have to appear stuffy or outdated — they’re nonsensical, brutal, sarcastic, heartbreaking and harrowing, and the sequential versions here bring out all that and much more.
November 10, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Sara Varon returns with an innocent-seeming confection that like her previous graphic, “Robot Dreams,” manages to pack a sophisticated emotional message within its simple presentation.
In Varon’s story, Cupcake is the local baker in a New York City populated by large food items. Attempting to juggle life — Cupcake is also in a band — and achieve his dreams, Cupcake gets some advice and help from his friend Eggplant that involves sacrifice and commitment.
The goal? To take a trip to Turkey to visit Eggplant’s aunt, who is friends with Cupcake’s baking hero, Turkish Delight. Cupcake dreams of the possibilities of this meeting and gets enterprising in raising the funds to get there, but also discovers that life throws a few curveballs that can disrupt the best of plans and require inventive solutions and humility.
As usual, Varon’s cartoonish vigor couples with her patient depth in characterization to pull her story out of the expected one-dimensional presentation into a fully-formed world — and it’s to her credit that she can achieve this with one filled with walking, talking food. Such is Varon’s graceful sense of humor — and the lessons she offers are as friendly as they are profound.
Including several recipes that Cupcake uses throughout the book — Varon is an enthusiastic baker, just like her character — this is a great book that reveals to kids the beauty of baking as well as the demands of friendship.
Review: Nina in That Makes Me Mad by Hilary Knight and Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking by Phillipe Coudray
November 10, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Now an imprint of Candlewick Press, Toon Books forges ahead with the same simple quality that it’s always had displayed in these two new titles.
French cartoonist Coudray offers a series of comic strip vignettes that are surprisingly cerebral in their tone. Benjamin is a bear, and his encounters with other animals in the wild bring forth some surreal and even some hilariously brutal conclusions. Coudray is also a master of illustrating the sequential form to kids with his perfect pacing and the time unaccounted for between the panels. It’s a great book for kids who can settle in and approach a book as an exploration.
For Nina, children’s book legend Knight — illustrator of the Eloise books — adapts a text by Steven Kroll into a hybrid effort examining childhood anger. Each sequence illustrates the particular incident the anger brings on but is heralded in by a full-page that evokes more traditional picture books. Together, the pages add up to an empowering portrayal of the dark side of kids that validates it even as it suggests that understanding adults might be able to offer truly productive suggestions to quell the ill feelings.
March 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Antoine de Saint-Expury’s book “The Little Prince” stands on the edges of classic children’s literature partially because of its obtuse nature.
It’s not as simple and dazzling as the Oz books, nor as plainly absurdly funny as the Alice stories, nor as self-reverential as the Narnia series. In depicting a young visitor from another planet, it is often as alien as its subject, mixing wry observation and philosophy into a contemplative mix of fables.
As small a book as it is, it is also a bit of a conceptual monster. French writer/artist Joann Sfar is at the top of his game right now, and adapting “The Little Prince” may not seem the obvious choice for a man who took his literary achievements like “The Rabbi’s Cat” and translated them into cinematic ones. He directed the recent biopic of French singer Serge Gainsbourg, which wowed the audiences at Cannes.
That film might reveal the flow that led to “The Little Prince,” however. Sfar’s work, as personable as it is intellectual, may be the perfect nesting place for French culture as it is presented to an international audience. Sfar may be the world’s best translator, providing works with not only warmth, but also less sprawl.
Certainly his achievement with “The Little Prince” is to fashion a concise version that just might be — and I accept that this could be heresy –
better than the original.
The story follows a pilot who becomes grounded in the middle of the desert and rather than repairing his plane, becomes preoccupied with a little boy who visits him and claims to be from another planet.
What ensues is more a philosophical conversation as the Little Prince relates the story of his journey to Earth and his encounters with various other beings, all of whom represent the abstract absurdities of adult civilization.
These tales lead the pilot to embrace the Little Prince emotionally as well as intellectually, as he is guided through simple, yet wise, observations on the absurdity of capitalism and the illusions of ego, among other lofty topics.
As the encounter moves along, the Little Prince begins to resemble the pilot’s lost childhood — the lost innocence we all mourn — and an attempt to reconnect with that, amidst the complexities of the adult world and the often arbitrary whims of civilization.
Sfar has one weapon in his arsenal that allows him to achieve clarity — the sequential art form. This takes the place of the winding language of the original and, with the openness of the imagery, the ideas unfold as well.
This is a great triumph for Sfar, who has already proven his own ideas are equally up to the ones explored in The Little Prince. That’s the power of the pairing — an adapter who is equal if not superior to the originator.
More than anyone else working today, Sfar is the creator poised to suggest the graphic novel form as legitimate and sometimes elevated to even the loftiest critics and readers.
January 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
If “The Odyssey” is generally considered one of the greatest works of Western literature in the history of mankind, it suffers from the reality that as each year passes, fewer and fewer people actually read it as anything other than begrudging high school students.
Author Homer — whoever he actually was — would surely be pleased by the immortal reputation of his work, although probably less so by the general familiarity with its actual passages.
A good bit of what people actually know about “The Odyssey” comes from television and Ray Harryhausen productions, which usually score high on the spectacle, but somewhat lesser on the poetry.
Enter Gareth Hinds, the capable illustrator who seems to have made it his goal in life to take the older classics and interpret them — meaning the actual language of them — into a modern form that still honors the original. He’s done wonderful work on Shakespeare, for instance, maintaining the Bard’s lyrical integrity while still placing it all in a presentation that makes the power and relevance of the work even now still obvious to the reader.
With “The Odyssey,” he out does himself, bringing the fantastical very much down to earth, and paring the pieces to be less a special effects bonanza and focusing on the real monsters — greedy humans who descend upon the perceived weak in order to take advantage. In this case, the weak are the little family of Odysseus, left behind in wartime.
Though respected and even feared, all the men see his wife Penelope as fair game while the chips are down — she’s presented here as a cunning and strong-willed woman attempting all means necessary to beat the suitors at their own game. Meanwhile, son Telemachus is powerless to do anything about the parasites who live up to the most base form of humanity.
As Odysseus tries and tries and tries to get home, his gods become less villains than mere obstacles that make him want the path he moves on more than he would if it were an easy journey. Even someone as purportedly noble as Odysseus must be deprived of his backyard in order to truly want to relax in it — the call of masculinity, adventure and war and triumph, prove only something that makes a fellow weary.
Hinds cuts to the heart of the story in this way, even transforming terrors like the Cyclops and Scylla into annoyances — though dangerous ones — that Odysseus must deal with in order to achieve his goal.
Frustration heightened and desire elevated, he has to return to Ithaca and deal with the actual meat of the plot — ridding his home of the suitors. He does this through a secretive collaboration with his son, as well as the goddess Athena, and in many ways these are the most powerful sections of the adaptation.
The real monsters are jealousy, rage, longing and — worst of any — the passage of time and the moments lost in that. Hinds understands that dangers do lurk in this world, but its the darkness of the heart that really destroy a person.
It’s a great way for a kid to encounter this material. There are plenty of sources for over-the-top interpretations of classic mythology, from the “Clash of the Titans” remake to the Percy Jackson books and film, but Hinds pushes back all the clutter to uncover the real magic of the story — the parts that lie in its humanity.
June 22, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Age of Dinosaurs #3 (Dark Horse)
One of the most beautiful comics in print, this penultimate issue of Ricardo Delgado’s new paleontological epic continues to follow the mass migration of various dinosaur species. Fraught with the violence of nature and the fury of the journey, Delgado’s story unfolds in a total silence that keeps the narrative unfolding on the dinosaurs’ terms and not the readers’. Delgado was an animator on “Wall-E,” but the visuals here are more intimate, and any anthropomorphism comes off as a delicate touch.
Crogan’s March by Chris Schweizer (Oni Press)
In the previous volume creator Schweizer investigated political order versus chaos as a human struggle in a pirate setting. In this new book he tops his previous effort with a tense French Foreign Legion adventure that asks questions about war, borders, bravery, class, prejudice and the tentacles of history. Even with the heavy themes, it’s a lot of fun. With a whimsical but detailed European style of cartooning and an accessible scholarship, this series deserves a lot of attention outside the comics world.
First Wave #1 (DC Comics)
Superheroes with nothing but their fists and guile to help them defeat crime — oh, and a stylish 1940s period adventure to propel them — root around a mystery that will no doubt gather them together in the end. Doc Savage and The Spirit dominate this issue, but Rima, the Jungle Girl, does make an appearance, as do the Blackhawks and Batman — it’s all shaping up to be a fun romp. The beauty of this book is that it does recognize the absurdity of superheroes when placed in a real world setting, but doesn’t allow that inescapable fact to hijack it into silliness — and still the humor is there on the page.
Foiled by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallero (First Second Books)
Teen fantasy fiction legend Yolen picks up where Minx Books left off with this comedy romance that unfolds precisely before bursting into all out wonderment. Aliera is an up and coming fencer, as well as a high school student with no self-esteem for her social skills. Her game is thrown out of whack by a crush on her lab partner in science class, but as the story progresses, little chips in the walls of her safe world begin to appear — and like many other a teen trapped in a coming of age tale, she finds her place in the universe is far less mundane than she thought. A great one for teen girls with promise for future stories. « Read the rest of this entry »