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 »
May 26, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Two new graphic novels from First Second Books promise to show kids different sides of the World War II experience as seen through the eyes of heroes their own age.
“City of Spies” is a throwback of sorts, the kind of story with two spunky kids in the 1940s whose imagination and mischief get them involved in a mystery. In this case it’s Evelyn, a rich kid whose honeymooning dad has dumped her off at her bohemian aunt’s apartment in New York City, and Tony, the building super’s kid. Evelyn isn’t happy to be abandoned by her dad — she’s already ignored most of the time — and sets off to make things more interesting by concocting suspense tales and attaching them to the characters in the building, fueled by the comics that she draws for herself in her sketch book.
When she and Tony latch onto the German doorman’s comings and goings, they believe they’re really onto something, but their antics draw in a local cop with an inferiority complex in regard to his brother, a spy, and together with Aunt Lia, they bungle into a wider conspiracy lurking in the most mundane aspects of World-War-II-era America.
The tone of the story is snarky Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, but the art really brings it into perspective — Pascal Dizin is obviously a firm student of Herge, and his style evokes Tintin through and through.
It’s a good visual comparison, drawing a line to the orderly thrills and gentle humor that were indicative of Herge’s storytelling, as well as his art. This is, just like the Tintin stories, a tale of international intrigue featuring young heroes and a boozy, ne’er do well elder, and a charming one at that.
Strangely Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis also combine the elements of private sketch books and Nazis, but in an entirely different setting with “Resistance,” apparently the first book in a series.
Taking place in Vichy France, “Resistance” focuses on three kids who become embroiled in the French underground as Nazis move into their territory. At center is Paul, who constantly draws what he sees around him, which includes not only useful and vivid mapping of the area, but also portraits of the nasty little interactions between children who ape their parents’ prejudices.
While the book focuses on the struggle of Jews within that scenario — particularly Paul’s best friend, Henri, a Jewish boy whose parents go missing — it does so with a very similar tone to that of “City of Spies.” It’s generally more serious, but there’s that Hardy Boys aspect that doesn’t ignore the fact that, even within the darkest of moments, an adventure is very plainly an adventure, and a kid savors that moment even as fear might drill to his core.
It’s through the thrills that a little bit of history is effectively passed along. Both books manage to get facts in there without being intrusive to the stories that unfold — any kid will come back with a greater understanding of the era and the issues within it, as well as a desire to hear more from the kid heroes depicted in these works.
February 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
This year has already started strong in the world of graphic novels for kids. The books below, aimed at readers from ages 9 to 13, stand as some of the best. They’re perfect for picky readers — or just students who might be struggling and seeking something a little different to grab their interest — but any reader, including open-minded grown-ups, would love any of these.
Bloomsbury has released a sequel to last year’s feisty, wild west retelling of “Rapunzel” from Shannon and Dean Hale, with illustrator Nathan Hale, that centers on our heroine’s mischievous sidekick, Jack of bean stalk fame. In “Calamity Jack,” the duo return to his hometown to save his fellow citizens from the schemes of the very same giant so adept at sniffing English blood. This time around, he’s got the place under his thumb, thanks to some kind of fairy tale-themed protection racket. With the introduction of romantic rival Freddie Sparksmith, the story takes on a welcome steampunk edge.
Jake Parker’s “Missile Mouse: The Star Crusher” (Scholastic Graphix) mixes a lightness that never interferes with the seriousness that Parker includes in the work — he wants to tell a good space adventure even as he reveals that all that stands between the universe and a horde of alien villains attempting to uncover the ancient secret of manufacturing black holes to use as weapons is a humanoid mouse working for the Galactic Security Agency. Leaping from the pages of “Flight,” this full-length outer space adventure plays it fun but straight and even manages to incorporate more actual science in the details than last year’s “Star Trek” movie — and it’s a lot better!
Eleanor Davis returns with “The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook” (Bloomsbury) her first kids’ book since her award-winning “Stinky,” released last year from Toon Books. Davis’ new work is a slight science fiction comedy with a pretty elevated outlook. Typical geek Julian Calendar breaks from the bonds of stereotyping and teams up with Ben, a jock who moonlights as a master mechanic, and funky scientist DIYer Greta to battle a villainous old-timer — and washed-up purveyor of outdated innovation — Dr. Wilhelm Stringer. Hardy laughs mix with some genuine science — as well as whimsical flights of fancy — and a fabulous new book series is born! It’s a great antidote to the overabundance of supernatural potboilers for younger readers and a definite outreach to a generation being raised on Make Magazine.
Raina Telgemeier’s “Smile” (Scholastic Graphix) started its life as a serialized story online and comes full circle in the format it was born to — a complete YA graphic novel that can compete with the best of any prose work.
This autobiographical work follows Telgemeier’s traumatic dental experience as a middle schooler — not just braces, but a score of restorative dental work, as well as periodontistry, which weaves through the ground-zero years of puberty. Telgemeier’s purpose is to offer some self-deprecating humor in the name, revealing that even the worst thing that could happen is not always the end of the world, though it might seem that way when you’re 13. It’s also an amusing tale of empowerment, revealing that part of growing up is growing past the cruelty of other kids.
One of the best Web comics ever has been collected in book form — Kazu Kibuisihi’s “Copper” (Scholastic Graphix), a work that reached creative and intellectual clarity that few comics for adults ever seem to. Boasting the philosophical depth of children’s authors like Arnold Lobel and Peter Sis, and one of the most elegant and fluid cartooning styles you will ever encounter, Scholastic brings Kibuisihi’s Web comic to print form and we’re all the better for it.
Copper is a boy and Fred is a dog, and together they inhabit one-page adventures that mix the trials of giant mushrooms, apocalyptic cityscapes, DIY airplanes and jungle adventures with subtle investigations of self-esteem, the nature of contentment, the satisfaction of difficult challenges and enjoying the moment. Deep and satisfying and very, very funny!
December 14, 2009 § Leave a Comment
And I’m not talking about the idea of a “real” Robin Hood from whom the legend stems — I’m talking about the fictional outlaw we’ve all encountered. Any given Robin not only reflects the time in which he is conceived, but also the author who utilizes his fame for his or her own storytelling purposes.
At various times through history, the world’s nicest outlaw has not only appeared in books, movies and television, but also songs, poems, legends and other forms within an aural tradition that kept him alive. Robin Hood is the ultimate malleable tale and, despite the possibility of inherent corniness, it never seems to fade in vitality.
In the graphic novel for kids “Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood” — from Candlewick Press — Tony Lee approaches the story of Robin Hood as a sophisticated political drama. There’s action, sure, but there’s more behind-closed-doors betrayals and dirty deeds in this tale of historical and familial burdens and of complicated love stories where affection springs forth from the principles of the experienced rather than the passions of the young.
In this version, as in many, Robin of Loxley returns home unexpectedly from the Crusades to find his lands seized and his people under siege by the Sheriff of Nottingham and his bloodthirsty henchman Sir Guy of Gisborne. In this graphic novel version, the impetus for his homecoming is the murder of his father — as in others, he ends up on the wrong side of the law.
Inspired by the memory of his father’s friend, the outlaw William Stutely, who stalked Sherwood Forest years before, Robin bonds with the local outlaws, led by John Little, and begins to wage a war against the Sheriff in an attempt to raise money for a ransom to bring King Richard back home.
Lee portrays Robin Hood with the traditional authority afforded the character but lends a level of the boyishness that has been prevalent in the most recent adaptations, particularly the recent one starring Jonas Armstrong. Maid Marion isn’t so modern that she dives into the action, but she’s headstrong and intelligent and is realized as a strong female character integral to the success of Robin’s plan.
Unfolding as a large self-contained story, rather than a sprawling and episodic series of small tales, takes the superhero quality that has been so prevalent, thanks to several recent television series, right out — and that’s all for the better.
It’s a great intro to the story of Robin Hood for the young ones who haven’t encountered it firsthand and another great variation to an enduring story that is no doubt counting down to its next manifestation.
October 23, 2009 § 1 Comment
Children’s book illustrator Matt Phelan makes a dynamic graphic novel debut with “The Storm in the Barn,” which takes the setting of the Dust Bowl and transforms it into a barren landscape that inhabits a fertile universe of folklore.
Young Jack is bullied and depressed — the world is drying up around him, people are either leaving or dying, and a human desperation is starting to build up into bloodshed. He finds solace in fantasy, provided from his ill older sister’s readings of later L. Frank Baum Oz books and the tall tales of the owner of a local diner where people take refuge during dust storms.
Meanwhile, rumors are bandied about that Jack is victim to the so-called “dust dementia.” He begins to agree with that summation as he appears to hallucinate in regard to the barn of an abandoned neighboring farm.
Phelan’s delicate artwork captures the setting perfectly, with visuals drenched in the brown colors of drought that become tinged — but never overwrought — with color in fantasy and flashback sections.
Phelan takes a historical event and moves it into fantasy, with Jack functioning as a hero in direct line with the child heroes related through the stories he hears and the cause of the drought as something looming in the shadows with the potential to appear as some kind of beast of legend — or possibly just the object of Jack’s dilemma.
Phelan keeps you guessing until the end and pulls of the bulk of the story through an economy of dialogue — most of the book is wordless, words are used only when really needed. In the wave of graphic novel work aimed at kids, Phelan’s book flies to the top of the pile as one of the most challenging and depthful additions.
July 20, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Non-fiction graphic novels have become all the rage over the last couple years in an attempt to either make learning fun or just different. It’s a noble effort that plays to the visual learners of the world, who aren’t always well-serviced in text-heavy traditional curriculums.
Sometimes this craze results in oversimplified works that function well as introductions to the subject but don’t deliver any notable sophistication. The Hill and Wang imprint, however, has been notably at the top of the heap in this area, and the publishers have surpassed themselves with “The Stuff of Life.”
Subtitled “a graphic guide to genetics and DNA,” Mark Schultz’s story in “The Stuff of Life” is so much more. Collaborating with artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, Schultz frames the information inside an amusing story about a researcher on an alien planet filing a report with his ruler about the biology of Earth beings in a search for information to save their own race.
Such a setup in no way prepares you for what follows — the report is highly informational, a dense and complicated rundown that skimps on nothing. Through the sequential format, comic layouts serve as organizing principles for the information, adding an incremental quality that allows the reader to absorb and backtrack, as well as visual cues to what information is being presented where.
The book has a lengthy glossary and bibliography that speak to the density of the information presented. This is the first time I have ever wished a graphic novel had an index — something to consider for the second printing, maybe. Regardless, “The Stuff of Life” is so packed that it promises to be a non-fiction graphic novel the reader really does return to again and again.
June 14, 2009 § Leave a Comment
On the heels of Shaun Tan’s widely acclaimed book “The Arrival” comes “Tales from Outer Suburbia,” a kaleidoscope of dark absurdity aimed at kids. Tan mixes up a surreal brew that at some points resemble Rod Serling, other times Franz Kafka — and still others Edward Lear.
In the more traditional mode, “Eric” presents a foreign exchange student as a visiting little imp filled with mystery, while “Broken Toys” features the appearance of a man in an old-fashioned diving suit in the neighborhood, eliciting even more mysteries about a crabby neighbor.
Tan goes beyond the traditional at several points. “Distant Rain” is a lovely meditation on scraps of paper and poetry, while “Make Your Own Pet” is pure comic book. In “Grandpa’s Story,” Tan takes a sequential refrain from the printed word in order to present silent and vibrant scenes that no words could possibly capture. Tan also manages to pull narrative out of a newspaper clipping in “The Amnesia Machine.”
In Tan’s presentation, suburbia is a place of safety and sameness, of order and conformity, but something is outside of that place. The outskirts, while still part of the safe zone, also has the creeping influence of the unpredictable landscape just beyond — it looks familiar, but things happen that don’t fall into line. Suburbia is a state of mind as much as it is an area of housing — it’s a person’s personal space, within which the world makes sense. Tan’s territory is that point in which rationality begins to crumble slightly — not so much that it terrifies, but just enough to be entirely weird.
What makes Tan’s book so special is the way he presents his themes of discovery in real life terms — that of storytelling styles. The way he constantly surprises the reader is not safe, nor the same, nor confined by order and conformity.
“Tales From Outer Suburbia” presents surrealism that isn’t gratuitous, but clever — it presents darkness without pandering nihilism. Tan’s work creates a mood all its own as it weaves together pictures and words for a varied and sublime experience in the power of the printed page.
June 5, 2009 § Leave a Comment
The result of a collaboration between French cartooning force of nature Lewis Trondheim and fellow countryman, animator Fabrica Parme, “Tiny Tyrant” offers a simple set-up that makes the most of itself with laugh out loud results.
Ethelbert is the six-year-old king of Portocristo and a particularly rotten kid. Behaving probably not much different from the majority of grown-up royalty throughout history, Ethelbert is filled with demands and offers little to his own people. Whether he’s tangling with scientists in order to get a dinosaur named after him or tangling with Miss Prime Minister over a Christmas with dessert only, it’s all about him, never about his country.
Trondheim and Parme twist the affairs of state around real kid concerns — comic books, Santa Claus, neat cars — and provides a hilarious cacophony of horribleness. Parme’s illustrations, furthermore, are gorgeous, resembling the kind of 1960s stylized cartoon work that might have come out of DePatie-Freleng.
And though the book gets entirely outrageous, it never takes it so far that most adults would cringe at the crass quality of the humor — and definite feat in this day and age — and yet never neuters the laughs either. It’s biting for opposite ends of the age scale and a welcome import that American kids should love.
April 14, 2009 § Leave a Comment
It’s an exciting time for kids and comics — well, not the genre of comics, but definitely the medium. While superheroes continue to be co-opted by Hollywood and relegated to treatments that are somewhere between too adult and far too juvenile, comics continue to forge ahead on a higher road under the name “graphic novels.”
Above the surface are the adult titles that get all the attention, but one fortuitous side effect has been the focus on quality graphic novels for kids — particularly at the picture book appropriate age. It’s a natural progression — picture books and comics are close relatives, and both nurture a visual sophistication that is soon dispensed of once kids enter grade school.
One leader has been Toon Books, the imprint helmed by New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly, with the assistance of her husband Art Spiegelman. The company’s books were smart and modern with a dab of tradition. Most importantly, they never play to the parent, but are on the kid’s level, understanding what content will strike them emotionally and intellectually and never allowing design to overtake the artwork.
This spring, the imprint will release two new titles — this month brings Harry Bliss’ “Luke on the Loose,” and May offers “Benny and Penny in The Big No No.”
The first is a slapstick tale that has the animated Luke not just loose but unleashed through New York City, as he happily chases a flock of birds across town. It’s both a tribute to young impulsiveness and a cautionary tale — Luke regularly wreaks havoc on other people’s moments and puts himself into some situations that might raise eyebrows from lesser picture book publishers.
In this way, Luke’s flirtation with danger in the name of self-expression is positively subversive — but the idea that he may be taking it all too far is not lost on the narrative. Leastwise, this should crack kids up with its bravado. « Read the rest of this entry »