Graphic Novel Reviews | January 2011


The game is afoot. While comics set in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes universe aren’t quite crowding manga off the shelves, at least a dozen publishers have recent Holmes titles, many multivolume series. Holmes offers broad appeal across age ranges, and actor Jeremy Brett’s portrayal on British television made millions of fans worldwide. Last year’s modern-day update by the BBC will unquestionably deepen the detective’s appeal.

Among graphic adaptations, the lengthiest, best executed, and most ambitious are those crafted by adaptor Ian Edginton and artist I.N.J. Culbard, published in the United States by Sterling. Having begun with the canonical novels—A Study in Scarlet (a Great Graphic Novels for Teens nominee), The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of the Four, and The Valley of Fear—the team has also set its sights on the 50-plus short stories. These skew to older readers but are fine down to tweens.

With shorter, condensed plots and simpler art, Lerner’s “On the Case with Holmes and Watson” series is very good for ages nine and up. Six of the short stories are available, and eight more are coming, all with apt back matter about how Holmes solved the crime, plus maps and reading list. The somewhat similar series from ABDO/Magic Wagon offers attractive, rather manga-style art with younger-looking characters. Plots, however, have been expurgated (e.g., water replaces wine). These would be best for younger readers in very conservative regions. Stone Arch and Campfire publish shorter, nicely drawn versions of Hound, also fine for tweens and teens.

Of the noncanonical “pastiche” comics, Dynamite’s The Trial of Sherlock Holmes shows an inventive premise and tight plotting. The trendier “Victorian Undead” series from Wildstorm/DC pits Holmes against zombies, Jekyll/Hyde, and Dracula in new mysteries from the aforementioned skillful Edginton. Dark Horse’s The Irregulars spotlights Holmes’s urchin-assistants as they battle magic to save Watson and Irene Adler. In the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars (Franklin Watts), Adler teams up with the youngsters and Watson, while Holmes is thought lost over Reichenbach Falls. For more wildly diverse pastiches, check out the Moonstone and Transfuzion reprints and the droll Miyazaki Sherlock Hound anime.—M.C

Aragones, Sergio. Mad’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragones. Running Pr. 2010. 274p. ISBN 9780762436873. $29.95. f
Since 1962, Harvey, Eisner, and Reuben award winner Aragones has shared with readers of Mad magazine his virtually unparalleled skills at wordless comedy. For this wonderful oversized collection, he selected his favorite Mad pieces and provided new illustrations as well. Included are many of his “A Mad Look at…” features (groups of related strips on topics ranging from tattoos to Harry Potter); insightful “The Shadow Knows” panels (in which people’s shadows act out their hidden desires); and, of course, an abundance of his famous and endlessly inventive gags from the magazine’s margins (a
n included poster reprints no fewer than 500 of these mini marvels). VERDICT Aragones’s gags can be subtle, but time spent puzzling them out is well rewarded. His astonishingly fertile imagination and his amazing facility for pantomime (as he terms it in a new interview included here) are most stunningly displayed in two-page panoramas of scenes such as the Woodstock Festival, which are so dense with characters, incident, and humor that they merit careful scrutiny. A delight and an excellent tribute to a master cartoonist.—S.R.

Flowers, Arthur (text) & Manu Chitrakar & Guglielmo Rossi (illus.). I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. Tara Pr. 2010. 138p. ISBN 9789380340043. $16.95. BIOG
Self-dubbed a “performance poet” fusing the African oral tradition of the griot with Western print culture, Flowers (Another Good Loving Blues; Mojo Rising) weaves Martin Luther King Jr.’s story into the vivid canvas of Chitrakar’s distinctive art. For his part, the West Bengal scroll artist has produced dramatic illustrative visuals bringing to life Flowers’s spare, lyrical prose through a more picture-story approach than traditional comics. (See Eric Nash’s 2009 Manga Kamishibai for the Jap
anese approach to picture-story theater.) Endnotes provide brief background on the historical context of King’s life. VERDICT A myth-making take on King’s life that has both emotional and intellectual impact, the Flowers/Chitrakar collaboration supplies fresh color and richness to the oft-told history of this game-changer. The deceptive yet appealing simplicity of the bright, rounded figures turns King’s myth again for a new season. Designed for adults but fine for teens and up; recommended for all libraries. Be sure to display this along with Ho Che Anderson’s King: A Comics Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fantagraphics, 2005) for Black History Month.—M.C.

Carey, Mike (text) & Peter Gross (illus.). The Unwritten. Vol. 2: Inside Man. Vertigo: DC Comics. 2010. 168p. ISBN 9781401228736. pap. $12.99. F
Tom Taylor thought that he only shared a name with the hero of his now-missing father’s hugely popular Harry Potter–esque Tommy Taylor novels. But ever since Lizzie Hexam (seemingly a Dickens character come to life) confronted him with strange hints about his real nature, evidence has mounted that the truth is far stranger and that the literary “trivia” his father taught him may be key to his survival against a shadowy conspiracy attempting to control the world via its stories. Here, framed for the murder of a group of writers, Tom finds himself in a French prison, but Lizzie has a plan to spring him. Fra
nkenstein’s monster, Childe Roland, Joseph Goebbels, and a rebellious storybook rabbit also star. VERDICT While spinning the fascinating tale of his reluctant hero’s odyssey, Carey delves deeply into how stories influence reality—most movingly here in the characters of an indulgent father and his two children, who may play at being Tommy Taylor’s wizard friends a little too avidly. A dark, thoughtful metafiction with all of literature as its canvas; like Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next, with teeth. Highly recommended.—S.R.

Jacobson, Sid (text) & Ernie Colón (illus.). Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. Hill & Wang: Farrar. 2010. 160p. maps. bibliog. ISBN 9780809026845. $30. BIOG
Jacobson and Colón—the collaborators on The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation—revisit an earlier tragedy. Among the most famous diarists of history, Frank and her Holocaust testimonial have become part of the intellectual landscape for the 20th century even for those who haven’t read her original words. Not an adaptation of the diary itself, this comprehensive biography begins with Anne’s parents, travels through Anne’s upbringing prio
r to and during the Nazi regime and its death camps, and describes her father’s survival. Otto learns of the death of his daughter and the rest of the family, finds her diary, and jump-starts Anne’s legacy—she had wanted to become a writer. VERDICT This account was created with the full cooperation of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Historical contexts, maps, charts, and time lines make the story useful for all ages as a starting point for meeting the plucky Anne as not only memorializer of the Holocaust but also a delightful, perceptive heroine in her own right. The color art is attractive and evocative. An essential purchase. See Francisca Goldsmith’s recent interview with the authors (—M.C.

McCreery, Conor & Anthony Del Col (text) & Andy Belanger (illus.). Kill Shakespeare. Vol. 1. IDW Pub. 2010. 148p. ISBN 9781600107818. pap. $19.99. F
Starting as a video game idea, this became instead a massively multi-character crossover comic set in a fantasy “Bardverse.” When Hamlet’s ship is attacked by pirates, he escapes and is found by Richard III, who tells him that he is the one prophesied to free Richard’s people from the tyranny of the wizard (or perhaps god) called William Shakespeare. But Hamlet soon discovers that another faction, led by the rebel Juliet and her lieutenant Othello, worships Shakespeare and believes that the chosen one will bring Shakespeare out of seclusion to reinvigorate the land. VERDICT Despite the hackneyed proph
ecy plot device, McCreery and Del Col spin an engrossing action-adventure tale of satisfying complexity, full of mystery, deceit, and gory violence, starring a hero who once again must marshal his determination and decide his path. While not scholarly or especially subtle, it makes good use of its main characters, incorporates many references to the plays, and achieves its seeming ambition to be cool (and even, when Hamlet and Falstaff escape the “bawdy house,” comical). Recommended.—S.R.

Smith, Jeff. RASL: Pocket Book One. Cartoon Bks. 2010. 232p. bibliog. ISBN 9781888963243. pap. $17.95. F
The celebrated creator of the youthful Bone series here leaps into adult comics. In this sci-fi thriller, RASL steals art for a living, plundering famous paintings from parallel universes. Then a nasty lizard-faced heavy comes after him, and the story alternates among RASL’s memories about his former career, his struggles with the lizard, and the romantic complications of his present life. We learn that he hops universes only very painfully by using equipment based on the theories of Nikola Tesla, know-how gained during a military initiative that RASL’s former persona Robert Johnson helped design—and then destroyed because of potentially disastrous outco
mes. It’s a tribute to Smith’s narrational skill that the story thread never tangles incomprehensibly while bits and pieces of RASL’s past come to life amid his present dilemmas in multiple universes. VERDICT In gritty black and white, RASL offers grown-ups a hard-boiled story about corruption and cutting-edge physics, as addictive in its own way as Bone for its combo of almost wordless action and sophisticated premise. With sexual situations and obviously much more plot to come; recommended for adult collections.—M.C.

Tran, G.B. Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey. Villard: Random. Jan. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9780345508720. $30. AUTOBIOG
This will be called the Maus for the Vietnam War, and for good reason. Similar premise: clueless American-born son of immigrants confronts the legacy of family pain predating his birth. Says Tran’s mom, “We left Vietnam so you would NEVER have to know what it’s like”—that is, to be captured and tortured, or abandoned by partners, or to have to flee approaching troops. Similar outcome: a kick-in-the-gut graphic novel. Many in Tran’s family each had several marriages or the equivalent: when your wife or husband di
sappears unexpectedly, you feed the children only by finding someone else, even a foreign officer. For Tran to work out the story of his parents’ escape to America, he had to assemble hundreds of fragments from and about more than a dozen people. Thus he purposely fragments the plot, shifting points of view, narrative voices, and settings while the reader—as did Tran—must assemble the pieces to learn how his parents became the people he knew (a family tree mid-book helps). VERDICT Engaging, challenging, and disturbing, Tran’s family memoir belongs in all public and academic libraries; older teens and up for occasionally strong language and violence. The swirly, jagged color art fits the story perfectly.—M.C.

Unita, Yumi. Bunny Drop. Vol. 2. Yen Pr. 2010. 204p. ISBN 9780759531192. pap. $12.95. F
At the funeral for Daikichi’s grandfather, a surprise guest turns up: Rin, Grandpop’s six-year-old lovechild by an unknown woman. The embarrassed family hems and haws until a disgusted Daikichi, who admires Grandfather’s spunk, invites the silent and stoic little girl to come home with him. Alas, this thirty-something bachelor can barely relate to either women or kids, and now he’s getting a sudden crash course in both. In Volume 2, he manages to track down the mystery mother, who is way more immature than he or even Rin. Gradually, Daikichi grows into a surprisingly competent parent, forming a part friendly, part yearning, part embarrassed relationship with another single parent. Perhaps love wi
ll bloom between them or perhaps Rin’s mom will mature into wanting a relationship with her child and adoptive father. Targeted to twenty-something women, the series is up to seven volumes in Japan. VERDICT The story manages to be realistic, touching, and funny in all the right spots, with Daikichi an all-too-human role model for a newbie father. The art is slightly awkward in an appropriate way. Strongly recommended for teen and adult collections and for women who have never read manga.—M.C.

Yamamoto, Tsunetomo (text) & Chie Kutsuwada (illus.). Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai; The Manga Edition. Kodansha, dist. by Oxford Univ. Jan. 2011. 144p. ISBN 9784770031204. pap. $14.95. ANTHRO
The original Hagakure encompasses some 1300 aphorisms, stories, and how-to’s from aging former samurai Yamamoto, transcribed over seven years in the early 1700s by the young Tashiro Tsuramoto. As a philosophical and literary work, the language, challenges, and contradictions posed by the diverse entries recall the White Queen’s line about believing six impossible things before breakfast. So readers should prepare for widely various and inconsistent bits: from healing a wound with horse dung, avoiding yawning in public, rushing into revenge attack without consideratio
n for consequences, and raising chaste daughters, to living only in the present. Unfortunately, reducing the Hagakure to comics has meant selecting only a dramatic 34 of the 1300, mostly about killings and suicides. Thus the original appears somewhat misrepresented, even with an afterword about context. VERDICT With all good intentions and competent art, this adaptation based on William Scott Wilson’s translation reduces the original work to a gorefest. As a result, much of the period’s cultural oddness for moderns and the setting for the many tales about violent deaths is lost. For adult collections where translations of the original are popular.—M.C.


Graphic Novels and Comic Books. H.W. Wilson. (Reference Shelf). 2010. 195p. ed. by Kat Kan. illus. ISBN 9780824211004. pap. $35. REF
A resource rather than a how-to, Kan’s anthology begins with the background behind graphic novels’ recent spike in prominence and moves on through to literary, literacy, and library relevance. Sources range from newspaper articles and scholarly essays to online features and blogs. Comics veterans will find much familiar and spot quite a bit of overlap in the content; however, they will discover new approaches, e.g., Allyson Lyga’s discussion of how “reading” a wordless comic like Owly essentially requires the reader to create the story and dialog. Or, consider Stephen Tabachnick’s rationale for comics’ revival: “Since 9/11…we are
living in a comic-book world…and its elastic rendering in comics seem to duplicate our own explosive experience better than any other medium does.” VERDICT The wide disparity in graphic novels savvy among both patrons and librarians lends this background collection special relevance as a resource for internal library issues as well as for outside researchers and students of the format. Kan, who selects the titles for Wilson’s Graphic Novels Core Collection database, is a trusted presence on conference panels. ­Recommended for all libraries.—M.C.