Graphic Novels: 2013 Year in Review RIP “comic book supervillain” Dr. Fredric Wertham, undeniably dead at last owing to Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois’s eye-opening findings that he fudged his “proof” about comics causing delinquency. The educational and library establishments know now that, to the contrary, comics cause better reading. Amid buzz about the Common Core Standards’ mention of graphic novels comes word of a University of Oklahoma study demonstrating how effective comics are for teaching. In Ontario, Canada, standardized achievement tests include comics.
Parents are getting the message, too: mom Amy Rosen told School Library Journal (ow.ly/tIeX6) that she brought her son and his friends to the New York Comic Con (NYCC) because it “encourages the boys to read.” The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBDF) recently published “Raising a Reader!” to spread this message further. Adults love kids’ comics, too—My Little Pony’s “Bronies” have become a recognized fangroup, while many award worthies such as Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints and John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March readily cross generations.
For their part, adult sf and fantasy comics show new variety and appeal from Image and other publishers, plus from creators self-publishing. In the library world, the lavish Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants became administered this past year by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Gaming Round Table and the Graphic Novels & Comics Member Initiative Group. Digital comics increasingly percolate out to patrons via iVerse’s ComicsPlus: Library Edition, BiblioBoard’s collaboration with Bluewater Productions, and other publishers and multiple suppliers. DC Comics is working toward a library-friendly infrastructure—DC graphic novels have been enhanced with CIP data since 2012, and the company cosponsors events at ALA conferences. Indeed, GraphicPolicy.com reports data from November that almost 45 percent of comics fans on Facebook are female. That’s quite a jump from 2011 data pegging women fans at 25 percent. More women fans, or more women willing to admit it? Either way, hooray!—M.C.
Brooks, Max (text) & Caanan White (illus.). The Harlem Hellfighters. Broadway: Crown. Apr. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780307464972. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780804140331. F
They ended up fighting for France because the American Expeditionary Forces refused to use them. After training in South Carolina, the first African American troops to fight in World War I were sent to Europe only to be put to work as stevedores and day laborers. Only when the overwhelmed French army begged for help did the United States release the all-“colored” 369th regiment for combat—under the oversight of the French command, which treated them fairly. Ultimately one of the fiercest and most decorated units of the war, the 369th earned the “Harlem Hellfighters” nickname from the Germans, not the Allies, and spent more time in combat than any other American unit. Brooks (World War Z; The Zombie Survival Guide) based the lightly fictionalized account on true events and people. VERDICT The centenary of World War I beginning this year begs for a graphic novel display; include this compelling account as well as titles by Jacque Tardi and Joe Sacco. Stark black-and-white art from White (Über) gives the body-shredding violence the immediacy of a newsreel, and the absence of gray scale highlights the racial divide. For high school age and up.
Chast, Roz (text & illus.). Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir. Bloomsbury. May 2014. 240p. ISBN . $28. MEMOIR
Chast (Theories of Everything) draws the Moving Sidewalk of Life with a sign: “Caution—drop-off ahead.” The New Yorker cartoonist had vaguely thought that “the end” came in three stages: feeling unwell, growing weaker over a month or so in bed, and dying one night. But when her parents passed 90, she learned that “the middle [stage] was a lot more painful, humiliating, long-lasting, complicated, and hideously expensive” than she imagined. Chast’s scratchy art turns out perfectly suited to capturing the surreal realities of the death process. In quirky color cartoons, handwritten text, photos, and her mother’s poems, she documents the unpleasant yet sometimes hilarious cycle of human doom. She’s especially dead-on with the unpredictable mental states of both the dying and their caregivers: placidity, denial, terror, lunacy, resignation, vindictiveness, and rage. VERDICT Like Joyce Farmer in Special Exits (LJ 9/15/10), Chast so skillfully exposes herself and her family on the page as to give readers both insight and entertainment on a topic nearly everyone avoids. As with her New Yorker cartoons, Chast’s memoir serves up existential dilemmas along with chuckles and can help serve as a tutorial for the inevitable.
Claremont, Chris (text) & John Bolton (illus.). Marada the She-Wolf. Titan. 2013. 112p. ISBN 9780857686329. $24.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS
In this heroic fantasy tale, originally serialized in the mid-1980s in Marvel’s adult-oriented Epic Illustrated magazine, beautiful silver-haired Marada is a granddaughter of Caesar of Rome but chooses to live independently as a freelance swordswoman. As the book opens, she has suffered a trial and renounced the blade, retreating for recuperation to the mystic English fortress Ashandriar and the care of its mistress Rhiannon and her warrior son Donal. But when Marada’s demonic tormentors track her down, she is forced into battle once more. Later episodes find Donal’s young daughter Arianrhod, a sorceress-in-training, accompanying Marada on an odyssey involving African bloodsport, Arabian pirates, and a powerful and duplicitous wizard. Claremont’s scripting shares its serious, introspective tone with his celebrated X-Men work, but Bolton’s artwork is the greater attraction, with strongly realistic human figures—and infernal monsters, for which he demonstrates a flair—rendered in exquisite detail and sumptuous color (with some nudity and gore). VERDICT The story was unfortunately never finished, but what exists, collected complete here, is definitely worth the time of swords-and-sorcery fans.—S.R.
Colucci, Ryan (text) & Zsombor Huszka (illus.). R.E.M. Spoke Lane. 2013. 176p. ISBN 9781628470154. $19.99. F
Michael Letto is out to avoid sleep at all costs—his One True Love committed suicide, and she comes to him in his dreams, which drives him nuts. Fortunately, he’s a neuroscientist with a mechanical bent, so he invents a “sleep chair” that provides a full night’s rest in a half hour. Or so Letto claims. Word spreads, and both the government and a religious group want in on this invention. But Michael grows more secretive, paranoid, and desperate for the lost Eva, who paradoxically seems to come closer to him when he’s in the contraption. Colucci’s psychological thriller speaks to common needs—slumber and love, both elusive for Michael. When matters come to a head, he must choose “reality” or his visions. The reader must decide, too: Is it all a delusion of Michael’s sleep-deprived brain, or a science-fictionish boon to humans and a union of science and mysticism? VERDICT A perfect marriage of text and art, Huszka’s mastery of black and white extends the starkness, grit, and beauty of this adult tale. A fine find for mind-bender fans and art noir aficionados.
Dorvall (text) & Philip Renne (illus.). CSA. Vol. 1: Southern Cross: Annuit Coeptis. Sekwana Comics. (Confederate States of America). 2013. 64p. tr. from French by Madeleine Velguth. ISBN 9780989606301. $22.95. F
In this alternate-history drama from French writer Dorvall, planned for seven volumes, General Lee pursues different tactics at Gettysburg and wins for the South. With enemy troops marching on Washington, the stricken North imposes martial law under General McClellen, who banishes Lincoln to Chicago and negotiates a painful peace. Amid a welter of schisms, generals, and politicians on both sides, we follow four fictional characters: Confederate captain Erwin Whitaker; captured black Union sergeant Joe Jefferson; Gettysburg Confederate veteran Aymond Vouleuvre, who has escaped to the North; and Senator Dwight Loud’s journalist daughter Emma, who’s settled in New York to agitate against McClellen’s coup d’etat. The expressive painted color art suggests video game characters and vistas. Although the Union’s quick disintegration seems forced, many plot details appear historically reasonable, such as the wide variety of opinions in both North and South about slavery. VERDICT While a full character list appendix would improve understanding, the story compels immersion into the period, encouraging speculation both exciting and educational. Alternate history and Civil War buffs will want to check it out, and history classes may benefit from discussions based on the outcomes it proposes.
Natarajan, Srividya (text) & Durgabai & Subhash Vyam (illus.). Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice; Incidents in the Life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Tate. 2013. 108p. ISBN 9781849761130. $27.50. BIOG
A contemporary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Ambedkar crusaded for recognition of the human rights of India’s delit peoples: the “untouchable” castes. Although he triumphed over his own “despised” status to earn multiple doctorates, campaign against discrimination, and help draft India’s first constitution, the delit are still badly treated. Framed by a present-day conversation between two people on a bus, the narrative jumps between vignettes of Ambedkar’s life and shocking contemporary violence. An especially tragic element was his conflict with Gandhi, who felt that the struggle for Indian nationalism against British rule should take precedence over remedying caste inequalities. So in the way U.S. civil rights inequities persist centuries after the Civil War, caste prejudice continues in India despite text about equal treatment written into its constitution. VERDICT Ambedkar offers an eye-opening glimpse of human rights violations about which Westerners rarely hear. The Vyams, a married couple, use traditional Pardhan Gond folk art, with magical realist imagery infusing animals, inanimate objects, and words as well as human characters with texture and personality. The result is a work of both striking graphics and devastating rhetoric that speaks to adults while being understandable to younger ages.
Schechter, Ronald (text) & Liz Clarke (illus.). Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism; A Graphic History. Oxford Univ. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9780199334094. pap. $19.95. BIOG
England’s heavyweight champion in the 1790s, Daniel Mendoza has a walk-on in Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew (2003). “[Mendoza] has invented a scientific boxing!” crows Fagin’s papa. Indeed, Mendoza scooped Muhammad Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” by introducing defensive moves and complex footwork to boxing two centuries before Ali. Schechter views Mendoza’s life through the multiple lenses of celebrity sports culture, nationalism, gender, and minority issues. The five-part lesson in historical methodology includes the graphic biography itself, selections from primary sources, discussion of the historical context and how the graphic novel was made, and suggestions for writing projects so readers may try “what historians do” themselves. VERDICT A stellar example of how graphic novels can provide a window on a whole world of history and scholarship, Mendoza is also an entertaining and eye-catching read. The solidly researched work of Schechter (Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715–1815) is paired with dramatic and lyrical watercolors from Clarke (Abina and the Important Men). Apparently designed with college undergraduates in mind, the title also works well for high schoolers and casual readers.
Stephenson, Eric (text) & Nate Bellegarde & Jordie Bellaire (illus.). Nowhere Men. Vol. 1: Fates Worse Than Death. Image. 2013. 184p. ISBN 9781607066910. pap. $9.99. SF/FANTASY
In this brilliantly conceived alternate history, neuroscientist Dade Ellis, geneticist Simon Grimshaw, inventor Emerson Strange, and theoretical physicist Thomas Walker came together as World Corp., intending to improve the universe through science. They succeed, ushering in an age when top scientists are also top celebrities (and gangs of “science punks” carry out dangerous underground experiments). But their unity is short-lived, with the psychedelic drug-using Thomas first to go, and things begin to unravel. Only a reclusive Emerson is left at the helm when the actions of the quarantined crew of a secret World Corp. space station threaten to change the planet in a new and terrible way. Through nonlinear flashbacks and interspersed text pieces, Stephenson expertly fills in fascinating details about the group’s rise and fall. Underscoring the series’s tagline “Science is the new rock ’n’ roll,” he peppers the text with music references. Plot-wise, the book harks back to one of sf comics’ classics, the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby Fantastic Four, and artistically to the more recent through Bellegarde’s affinities with wide-screen artists such as Frank Quitely and John Cassady. VERDICT Intriguing, exciting, and strongly recommended.
Sterrett, Cliff (text & illus.). LOAC Essentials. Vol. 3: Polly and Her Pals, 1933. IDW. (Library of American Comics). 2013. 336p. ed. by Dean Mullaney. ISBN 9781613776988. $24.99. COMICS
Sterrett’s classic Polly and Her Pals newspaper strip, humorously recounting the daily lives of a flapper and her extended family, received deserved acclaim when IDW’s lavish oversized 2010 collection of 1913 to 1927 Polly Sunday strips was nominated for two Eisner Awards. Here, in Volume 3 in the series (the first two volumes were devoted to other strips), IDW gathers a complete year of Sterrett’s lesser-known weekday installments in an equally opulent format: a short, oblong hardcover presenting one strip per page with unusually large reproduction. The book’s star is not the fashionable Polly but her harried yet kindhearted Pa, with his rural idioms and many comical quirks. The cover touts the strip’s “surrealist hilarity,” but although Sterrett occasionally indulges in outright fantasy (for instance, having Santa Claus turn the whole family into wooden dolls for the Christmas season), the distinctive, artfully distorted background designs of his most celebrated Sunday work are almost entirely absent here. VERDICT Sterrett’s cartooning mastery is better displayed in Polly’s Sunday strips than in these more conventional dailies, but this is still historically important work.
February 16 was Unshelved’s 12th birthday. In that time, comic strip creators Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes have made almost 4,000 comic strips, delivered over 100 talks at staff days and conferences, reviewed over 2,000 titles, and sold over 25,000 books and “we-don’t-know-how-many thousands” of T-shirts. Congratulations from LJ.