Graphic Novels Reviews, November 15, 2011

GROWN-UP CHILDREN’s BOOKS When Cinderella drops not a slipper but an eyeball, you know you’re not reading a kids’ book. Such quirky gems look like comics for children, and many may be enjoyed by sophisticated youngsters. But the adult creators did them to please not kids as such, but the kids within us adults, drawing for, shall we say, the whole person.

Junko Mizuno’s Cinderalla (sic) and √âmile Bravo’s Squat Bears mashups are excellent representations of fairy-tales-gone-akilter, which, while suitable for children, have subtleties and not-so-happy endings better appreciated by adults. Puppet fave Pinocchio sticks his nose into three edgier stories: two Pinocchio Vampire Slayer hits by Dustin Higgins and Van Jensen and Winshluss’s noir adult Pinocchio‚ whose robotic metal skull shelters a smoking-and-drinking Jiminy Cockroach.

Death is good for a laugh in these zingers. Andy Riley’s zillion-variation Bunny Suicides books‚ the first of which was challenged in an Oregon library‚ recall Louis Trondheim’s deadpan doomed adventures of stick-doodles Mister O and Mister i. More deliberately pitched to black-brained boomers come two unlikely pictures books: Ken Tanake’s Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grownups and Avery Monsen and Jory John’s All My Friends Are Dead.

Of course, hellions have always been popular, √† la South Park. Lela Lee’s Angry Little Girls or Nix’s Kinky and Cosy could easily kick Bart Simpson’s butt and love it. In Jay Stephens’s Welcome to Oddville, characters include mouthy animals and vegetables, supergirl Jetcat and her stepbrother Avery, an adhesive bandage, and a mosquito named Mr. Suckley.

Finally, some older-age stories feature childlike visuals. Tatsuya Ishida’s Sinfest (see Graphic Novels, LJ 9/15/09) comes to mind, with its young-looking but clearly mature stars who trash talk about sex and everything else. Metaphrog’s Louis Night Salad and Renaud Dillies’s Bubbles & Gondola boast whimsical drawings coupled with surreal, dreamlike plots that might puzzle some kids. David B. & Pierre Mac Orlan’s The Littlest Pirate King is a gorgeous work that can be enjoyed by teens and older tweens, but grown-ups might best grasp its tragic underpinnings and paradoxical conclusion.‚ M.C.

African-American Classics: Stories and Poems from America’s Earliest Black Writers. Eureka. (Graphic Classics, Vol. 22). Dec. 2011. c.144p. ed. by Tom Pomplun & Lance Tooks. ISBN 9780982563045. pap. $17.95. LIT
By turns elegant, tragic, and funny, these 23 full-color adaptations lay out a mosaic of stories and poems originally published between 1891 to 1931. The 17 featured African American writers include literary giants like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; four contemporary writers adapted the lengthier works, and 23 contemporary African American artists produced the images. The collection opens with Florence Lewis Bentley’s tragic war story Two Americans, rendered in beautifully evocative realism by Trevor Von Eeden, and ends with Frances E.W. Harper’s rather formulaic parable Shalmanezer, much enhanced with original and simply lovely art by Lance Tooks. The selections in between dip into horror, satire, social commentary, revenge, parody, and edgy slapstick (especially in the one-upmanship of Filling Station). VERDICT All the selections are compelling and evocative owing to the successful partnership between the art and the text. This collection should be enjoyed by readers familiar with the originals as well as students and their elders, teen through adult, who may be new to African American writing of this period. Strongly recommended.‚ M.C.

Amir (text) & Khalil (illus.). Zahra’s Paradise. First Second: Roaring Brook. 2011. c.272p. ISBN 9781596436428. $19.99. F
As in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, here the personal Iran reveals the political. We meet Zahra and Hassan, mother and son, as they search for younger son Mehdi, who has gone missing. All fear his capture by the Secret Police in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election. In the end, Mehdi is found, but not happily, in this parable out of Kafka. Yet the warmth and passion of the Persian soul shine through‚ eros also. It should be noted that Zahra is not just the titular mother: Zahra’s Paradise is a real, million-grave cemetery in Tehran, and Zahra Kazemi was an actual Canadian-Iranian journalist who was beaten to death in an Iranian prison. Khalil’s excellent art has been compared with Satrapi’s, but it more resembles Craig Thompson’s with a hefty dose of M.C. Escher. Both creators of this collage, fictionalized from true stories, are expat Iranians working anonymously. Originally a multi-language webcomic, the book will be published in numerous countries. VERDICT Alternately horrible, lovely, and charming, Zahra’s sad quest evokes the spirit of people seeking justice. Some violence and sex-related content may limit the age appropriateness. Highly recommended for older teens and up seeking insights into the Middle East.‚ M.C.

Card, Orson Scott & others (text) & Honoel A. Ibardolaza (illus.). Laddertop. Vol. 1. Tor/Seven Seas. 2011. c.192p. ISBN 9780765324603. pap. $10.99. F
Two BFF tween girls apply for an elite gig as tenders for four giant towers known as Ladders, which rise up to a space station powering all Earth. The Ladders and Laddertop, we learn, were supplied by the Givers, mysterious aliens still opaque to the humans administering Laddertop. Only children are small and light enough to perform vital system maintenance. While the adventure and the interkid rivalries hook in the plot, a deeper metaphor lurks beneath: the mysteries of adulthood and its relationships. For if the alien signals have been indecipherable, so, too, is the behavior of the adult humans who lead the web rats into their new role. Should Robbi, Azure, and Xichab trust their instincts or follow instructions? And whose instructions? What’s more, the aliens appear to be communicating directly with Robbi, and what does that mean? VERDICT A first-class plot could be developing here, although it’s too early to foresee how it will play out. While not so stylish or dramatic as Japanese manga art, the black-and-white drawings are well designed and attractive. Teens and tweens will find this story intriguing.‚ M.C.

Gelatt, Philip (text) & Tyler Crook (illus.). Petrograd. Oni. 2011. c.264p. bibliog. ISBN 9781934964446. $29.99. F
It took conniving Russian aristocrats numerous attempts with poison, knife, gun, fists, and icy water to murder mad monk Grigori Rasputin. But the lethal bullet was English, per recent findings. Gelatt fictionalizes the alleged shooter as Cleary, a young British intelligence agent who must supervise this assassination but finds himself an unwilling collaborator. While history presents a nasty-enough thriller to work with, Gelatt’s command of character makes this attempt particularly successful. From hapless Cleary to the perverse yet likable nobles, the swaggering chief of the tsar’s police, and Cleary’s prickly Bolshevik crush, the characters seem to wear their dialog, not just speak it. Their grimy romanticism conjures an unsavory history when nobody had clean hands. VERDICT Gelatt never lets us forget that real people create history, and he asks, What if those people were us? Crook’s semirealistic, sepia-washed art lends just the right aura of a dangerous time that we may want to glimpse but certainly not relive. Recommended for history buffs and thriller lovers, as well as a curative for those who think history is boring. With violence and some sexual situations.‚ M.C.

Mukherjee, Poulomi (text) & Amit Tayal (illus.). Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Reloaded. Campfire. 2011. c.64p. ISBN 9789380741130. pap. $9.99. F
Scholars debate whether the character of Ali Baba came from the earliest One Thousand and One Nights collections, but it’s certainly one of the best known and most family-friendly tales of the bunch. In the usual version, Ali Baba is a woodcutter who happens to glimpse thieves visiting their treasure cave and through a combination of cleverness and helpful collaborators manages to take advantage of them. This modern reload puts Ali Baba behind the steering wheel of a Mumbai taxi, an auto rickshaw. The 40 thieves he stumbles across have masterminded a bank robbery and hidden 50 kilos of gold bars in a truck-size storage container; open sesame is the password to the computerized security lock. His updated family reflects the traditional characters: greedy brother, conniving but loveable sister-in-law, and pretty Marjeena, the kitchen help, whose smarts save everyone’s skins at the end. And as in the original, Marjeena marries Ali Baba’s son. VERDICT With engaging contemporary characters, stylishly angular color art, and minimal violence, this version of the classic tale will appeal to adults along with teens and older tweens who like picaresque urban adventure with a Mideast vibe.‚ M.C.

Sohmer, Ryan (text) & Various (illus.). The Absolute Ultimate Gutters: Omnibus. Vol. 1. Dynamite Entertainment. 2011. c.136p. ISBN 9781926838069. $39.95. F
Gutters: (1) unnoticed parts of a comic between panels; (2) place where the dregs of culture end up; (3) beings that scrape the entrails out of other beings. This Gutters is an aptly titled webcomic that slashes and burns the comics industry. Typical episodes sass the X-Men for taking on Dracula; DC for putting out the weekly Wednesday Comics in a retro format; Dynamite for licensing unlikely stories, to wit, the origin story of the Kennedy family with voodoo; and the crossover concept in general for allowing unlikely pairings (via an imaginary Green Arrow‚ Robin Hood team-up). In a more pointed example, a zombie Anne Frank returns to cannibalize her Nazi jailers. That Sohmer can get dozens of artists to illustrate these satirical excesses testifies to his cool quotient among the comikkensia. VERDICT A twisted treat, Gutters will appeal most to scarred veteran comics fans, especially of superhero comics, who are unencumbered by PC niceties and open to Sohmer’s opinions. It will also appeal to those who like comics about comics. Note occasional PG-level content and salty language.‚ M.C.

Straczynski, J. Michael (text) & Eddy Barrows & others (illus.). Superman: Grounded. Vol. 1. DC. 2011. c.168p. ISBN 9781401230753. $22.99. F
This fine volume finds Superman‚ after an extended absence from Earth and the traumatic loss of his kindred, chronicled in the New Krypton series and War of the Supermen‚ journeying across the United States on foot to reconnect with his adopted home. Along the way, he visits a diner, shoots some hoops, and deals with an abusive father. He also gets attacked by a superpowered brawler, and collateral damage from their battle leads some to question whether Superman’s presence is making them more safe or less. Superman is given an especially philosophical mood by Straczynski (Babylon 5), quoting Thoreau and having a moving discussion with a woman threatening suicide. Even when he discovers a group of illegal aliens (from another planet, that is), the book retains a real-life, topical basis. VERDICT Straczynski’s stories are strongly illustrated, mostly by Barrows‚ one episode penned by G. Willow Wilson and focusing on Lois Lane fares less well artwise. A step up from recent Superman volumes; recommended for all fans of the character.‚ S.R.

Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land. Abrams ComicArts: Abrams. 2011. c.240p. ed. by Paul Buhle & Harvey Pekar. bibliog. ISBN 9780810997493. $26.95. LANG/pop culture
Yiddish is a Germanic language with infusions from other tongues and written in the Hebrew alphabet. As Jewish culture grew in Europe, a Yiddish literary tradition developed that immigrants brought to the United States. This anthology dramatizes in comics and occasional prose pieces this tradition on both continents: historical overviews broad and narrow, cameos by writers, anecdotes about events and noteworthy figures, and several memoirs. The variety results in lively if sometimes maddeningly brief reading. Sholem Aleichem meets Mark Twain; Paul Robeson sings Yiddish in Russia. We meet Zero Mostel, actress/yenta extraordinaire Molly Picone, MAD cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, and the Noah-like Aaron Lansky who rescued over a million discarded Yiddish books to found the National Yiddish Book Center. We glimpse the wildly successful Yiddish film Grine Felder (Green Fields) and compare cantors Al Jolson with Moishe Oysher. VERDICT Not a reference or a language textbook, Yiddishkeit works best as a semischolarly introduction to a sprawling yet dense tangle of personalities that should intrigue high schoolers and adults. Serious students can dig further via the bibliography. The art (some color) is lively and compelling, and the publisher notes this is the late Pekar’s final fully realized work.‚ M.C.

About Comics

Farr, Michael. Tintin: The Complete Companion. Last Gasp. 2011. c.205p. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780867197549. $35. LIT
Tintin is a reporter the way that Indiana Jones is an archaeologist: on the road for assignments, he always finds unexpected adventures. For over 80 years, Europeans have loved the stories of Belgian artist Hergé about this forever-young hero whose slapstick-accented international exploits tug at all ages. Although available in English since the 1950s, Tintin has never captivated Americans. This will surely change when the Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson Tintin film hits the screen next month. Farr, a leading British Tintinologist, uncovers an entire infrastructure for each of the 24 Tintin books: publishing history, racial and ethnicity issues, and especially Hergé’s research. Hundreds of fascinating illustrations juxtapose the artist’s drawings with archival photo references. Originally published in 2002, the work would have benefited by a paragraph updating Tintin culture plus a few new references. Another drawback: some French cartoons have no translations. VERDICT Recommended for Yankee Tintinphiles and teens and up. It will also serve as a nice story sampler for newbies sucked in by the film and students of graphic narrative. The 2007 Pocket Essential Tintin covers similar ground but without illustrations. Note: Three biographies of Hergé are due in December.‚ M.C.

Spiegelman, Art. MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus. Pantheon. 2011. c.320p. ed. by Hillary Chute. photogs. maps. index. ISBN 9780375423949. $35 with DVD. LIT
There’s a 5000 pound mouse breathing down my neck! Spiegelman tells us about the book that both ‚Äòmade’ [him] and haunted [him] ever since. For 25 years, it’s been: Why comics? Why mice? Why the Holocaust? For the silver anniversary of the only graphic narrative to have won a Pulitzer Prize, Spiegelman has created a companion volume about the how and the why, plus transcripts, family history, and the original three-page Maus cartoon‚ all copiously illuminated with hundreds of drawings, photos, and letters (including rejection letters from major publishers), many in color. An accompanying multimedia DVD provides a complete e-copy of Maus, home movies, audio interviews with father Vladek, thousands of additional sketches and cartoons, essays, more interviews, and still additional material. VERDICT Informative about everything you may or may not have thought to ask about Maus and the Spiegelmans, this exhaustive purgative has been well organized and packaged and succeeds in being grimly entertaining, indeed almost addictive. Required reading for serious students of graphic narrative and students of history, and bargained priced as well.‚ M.C.



  1. Lisa W says:

    Where is the review for the Everybody Dies book? I see it mentioned in the article, but can’t find the review.

  2. Heather McCormack Heather McCormack says:

    Hi, Lisa W. In her introductions, Martha Cornog will typically discuss books that are already published as a way to offer context for newer titles. That’s why you’re not seeing a review for Everybody Dies. It’s just a point of reference for a subject she feels is important to talk about.