Graphic Novel Reviews, September 15, 2012

Drawing on the Good in the wake of the recent Colorado shootings at the showing of a superhero film, let us remind ourselves how stories—and comics characters—can heal and inspire positive action. The 501st Legion of Star Wars baddie en-actors, who impersonate Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers, devote themselves to fundraising and charity appearances, not violence.

Members of the growing real-life superhero movement help the needy and patrol neighborhoods. Compelling medical narratives like Mom’s Cancer, Stitches, and Tangles (about Alzheimer’s) have led to an annual international Comics and Medicine conference to spread the knowledge and empathy contained in these narratives to medical professionals as well as to ­the public.

A 1950s comic about Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott explained techniques for nonviolent civil disobedience, and a 2008 Arabic translation is credited with inspiring Egyptian protestors.

In 2011, McPherson College’s Miller Library developed a comic about a zombie epidemic as an entertaining way to teach students about using the library. Within two months, the e-version of Library of the Living Dead went viral with 1.3 million hits. Soon after, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepared its own Zombie Pandemic comic to teach Americans about emergency preparedness, a big hit at the New York Comic Con.

Comics get content across to readers, owing to clarity and eyeball traction. When cartoonist Will Eisner drew vehicle repair instruction materials for the army in the 1950s, a skeptical officer had Eisner’s version tested by the University of Chicago. Eisner’s instructions came off as easier to read, understand, and remember than those that were text only.

And comics add fun to reading. Survey research, numerous anecdotal reports, and library circulation figures all show that young people love comics, and many self-dubbed “nonreaders” will read comics. Moreover, comics offer more “less-common words” than conversations between adults, adult television shows, children’s literature, and even some text-only books. Deaf people, those with autism or ADD, and anyone learning a second language all may derive special benefit from comics, as reported by professionals assisting these groups with reading. The Roman poet Horace noted more than 2000 years ago that success comes from combining pleasure and usefulness. And so, fortunately, graphic narratives will always survive as a force for good, despite those who might twist them to toxic purposes.

Chao, Fred. Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hero. Tor. 2012. c.192p. ISBN 9780765329370. pap. $16.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Things happen to Johnny Hiro, like when a Godzilla-type monster snatches Johnny’s girlfriend Mayumi because her mother had humiliated the beast with a mecha-enhanced knockout blow decades earlier. Or when an innocent night at the opera coincides with a dust-up involving 47 office workers acting like avenging ronin. Or when his boss at the sushi restaurant orders Johnny to steal a special lobster from a rival chef. Or when New York’s Mayor Bloomberg intercedes with Judge Judy in a lawsuit about the damage the monster did to Johnny’s apartment building. Chao shines at detailed, sublime chaos, dealt out bit by bit in slightly cockeyed line art. Throughout, Johnny manages all at once to be heroic, an everyman shlub, and a sweetheart of a boyfriend to chirpy, new-immigrant Mayumi—who specializes in goofy Gracie Allen quips. VERDICT This guilty pleasure offers occasional existential wisdom, like this from Johnny’s pal: “When things are calmest, I shouldn’t forget to dig a bit so I bring more to the table. It just makes things richer.” Chao’s funny, acrobatic, and sweet treat should appeal to Japanophiles, New Yorkers, and lovers of slapstick action from teens through adults.—M.C.

de Heer, Margreet. Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics. NBM/ComicsLit. 2012. c.120p. tr. from Dutch by Emma Ringelberg & Dan Schiff. ISBN 9781561636983. $16.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Philosophy is thinking about thinking. That’s where de Heer begins in this charming, personal work, which features her and her husband, Yiri, as guides. What is thinking, anyway? How do we know we know? Who are we? Well-known Western cogitators like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have considered these questions, as have the medieval Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, followed by Erasmus, Descartes, and Spinoza, de Heer’s fellow Hollander. For modern philosophy, however, she pulls back into the personal realm by letting friends and relatives speak about their own philosophies and who inspires them, from Nietzsche to George Carlin. She draws philosophy out of the abstract, academic ether and connects it to real people and their lives. VERDICT Avoiding a systematic, scholarly overview, de Heer makes philosophical questions lively, quirky, and enduring through her informal approach and lighthearted color drawings. Her appealing introduction will engage those curious about this “philosophy stuff,” teens and up. For younger readers, a teacher or parent can provide further information. See also Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers! (LJ 1/07).—M.C.

The Graphic Canon. Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons. Seven Stories. 2012. c.512p. ed. by Russ Kick. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781609803766. pap. $34.95. GRAPHIC NOVELS

This lavish collection spanning four millennia includes 190 literary adaptations organized into three volumes. Besides the expected choices, this first volume’s culturally diverse works include a pre-Columbian Incan play, Tang Dynasty verses, a Japanese Noh play, Rumi poetry, and an ingeniously rendered sliver of the Mahabharata. Most of the selections are modest-sized abridgements or excerpts, 80 percent new material and the rest reprints. Quality and artistry all convey the unique flavors of the originals, although not all will appeal to everyone. Perhaps Kick’s visual banquet is best appreciated as a seductive howdy-do that could send readers to the originals, or to a longer graphic version. The set also makes an inspiring sampler of graphic innovation for art students and those interested in the comics format. VERDICT The trilogy should occupy a prominent place in all adult graphic novel collections. Note that a few selections (e.g., Lysistrata) are sexually explicit, and high school libraries should carefully evaluate suitability. Perhaps Kick’s project will spur substantive quality adaptations of many more literary works, which would further benefit libraries and classrooms.—M.C.

Johnson, Mat (text) & Andrea Mutti (illus.). Right State. Vertigo: DC Comics. 2012. c.144p. ISBN 9781401229436. $24.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

The second African American U.S. president is campaigning for reelection while facing threats from an expanding citizen militia movement. In an 11th hour attempt to suss out a suspected assassination plot, a Muslim FBI agent recruits conservative newscaster and ex–Special Forces commando Ted Akers to infiltrate the movement, Akers being a revered spokesman for veterans with pro-militia sympathies. The hero faces conflicting loyalties from the get-go, and things get worse when his cell phone is trashed and the assassination plot isn’t what he expected. Johnson (Incognegro; Dark Rain) delivers admirable story twists and dialog, and he again excels at portraying characters who evoke sympathy (though you wouldn’t trust them with your wallet). His militia members range from certifiable wingnuts ranting about peanuts as biological weapons, to “Occupy” types whose livelihood dried up owing to outsourcing. Mutti’s realistic art works well, although touches of color wash would have enhanced emotional and visual interest. VERDICT This fine political thriller, at times uncomfortably realistic, will appeal to graphic thriller and mystery fans who savored The Homeland Directive. Recommended for adult collections.—M.C.

starred review starMack, Stan. Taxes, the Tea Party, and Those Revolting Rebels: A History in Comics of the American Revolution. NBM/ComicsLit. 2012. c.176p. ISBN 9781561636976. $14.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Meet the original Tea Party and “Occupiers” of our nation’s founding: not idealistic heroes united against the British but an uneasy and untidy hodgepodge of self-
righteous intellectuals and aristocrats, money-hungry merchants and entrepreneurs, disgruntled soldiers, and just plain hungry working people. The British weren’t very good at either fighting or diplomacy much of the time, and the American troops were often worse. Mack reminds today’s voters that success in the 1770s came not through harmony—nobody agreed about anything—but through persistence, passion, creative thinking, and compromise. As proof, the resulting Constitution has lasted more than 200 years and been able to modernize, addressing gender and racial equality, for example. Mack’s endearingly irreverent and well-researched black-and-white account has been updated from his 1994 Real Life American Revolution and especially shines in coverage of issues relating to African Americans, Native Americans, and women. VERDICT While excellent for classroom-centered tweens and teens (who reportedly loved the 1994 version), these revolting rebels should star in all adult collections, too, in displays, and as readers’ advisory fodder through November.—M.C.

Quinn, Jason (text) & Amit Tayal (illus.). Steve Jobs: Genius by Design. Campfire. 2012. c.104p. ISBN 9789380028767. pap. $12.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Everyone’s favorite iGuy changed the world with Apple computers and their electronic relatives, and people growing up since the iPod (2001) can’t imagine a world without such small, smart machines. This overview of Jobs’s life and career itself resembles Apple products in its concise accessibility, showing how one person could envision what was possible but could also strip out the “unimportant stuff” to keep Apple products simple and accessible. And like Apple products, the drawings are slightly stylized and nicely designed. It’s no fan polemic, though, and includes Jobs’s bad temper, “reality distortion” problem that eventually led to his early death, checkered reputation as a father, and (yes) body odor. VERDICT Campfire’s extensive line of all-age graphic novels began with adaptations of classic adventure stories and has expanded into quality biographies. This one will help show younger people how the devices as they know them came to be, created by a real, flawed, yet admirable human like themselves. It’s also ideal for those not up to the 600-plus pages of Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography. See also The Zen of Steve Jobs (LJ 3/15/12).—M.C.

Snyder, Scott (text) & Greg Capullo (illus.). Batman. Vol. 1: The Court of Owls. DC. 2012. c.176p. ISBN 9781401235413. $24.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

DC’s New 52 relaunches Batman villains more than the heroes. Bruce Wayne with his own “court” of sidekicks (Alfred, plus old and new Robins: Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Damien Wayne) must accept that a centuries-old Gotham horror rhyme is real. A malevolent Court of Owls does exist, and its undead assassin, the Talon, is out for Batman. This new villain aims to terrify Bruce by challenging his mind and memory. The overall concept has a brilliant cohesiveness as an introduction to a creepy new clique of evildoers, wrapped in a well-crafted plot with cool details (Dick impersonating the Joker; the owl-insignia tooth characteristic of the Court’s assassins) and incredibly good art. Some of Capullo’s images of Batman grappling with the Talon have an almost sensual passion and beauty. The story is also a prequel to the Night of the Owls crossover event, which will fold in a dozen DC series, and kicks off an all-new series devoted to the Talon. VERDICT A must for superhero collections, Batman fans (of course), and new Batman readers, older teens and up, since the plot requires no prior familiarities.—M.C.

starred review starVan Sciver, Noah. The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln. Fantagraphics. 2012. c.192p. ISBN 9781606996195. $24.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Perhaps our most beloved president, Abraham Lincoln threatens merely to disappear into sainthood for most of us. Van Sciver has made him real by portraying one of the most difficult times in the future leader’s younger life. Confronting professional and personal setbacks, Lincoln becomes paralyzed by depression (which he calls “the hypo,” thinking himself a hypochondriac), breaks his engagement to his beloved, and crashes into a full-fledged mental breakdown. But with the help of friends, he weathers the storm to recoup his losses, wed Mary Todd, and go on to a revered career. Gritty, eye-opening period details include widespread slumlike living conditions, casualness toward prostitution, ignorance about mood disorders, barbaric medical treatments like blood-letting, and pretensions of the wealthy gentry. It’s rather like an American version of Dickens infused into a Jane Austen love story, and Van Sciver’s moody cross-hatching works exceedingly well in showing these lesser-known facets of Lincoln’s nonpolitical life. VERDICT An excellent choice for compelling leisure reading as well as for use in classrooms. Fantagraphics plans to do a study guide. Teens up, with caution owing to sexual issues.—M.C.

Wood, Brian (text & illus.) & Becky Cloonan (illus.). Channel Zero: The Complete Collection. Dark Horse. 2012. c.296p. ISBN 9781595829368. pap. $19.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

In the United States, sometime near the present, the Christian Right has forced passage of the Clean Act, censoring all media. The government has begun violently exporting its ideology overseas while keeping its citizens placated by propaganda and mindless entertainment. But in New York City, audacious rebel artist Jennie 2.5 is mad as hell. Hacking into TV signals, she begins broadcasting guerrilla protest messages, urging viewers to think for themselves. She becomes an icon of underground resistance—but big brother’s reach is long, and she soon finds that she’s made herself part of the problem: this revolution will be advertised. VERDICT It may take some suspension of disbelief on the part of readers to accept the Cleaners, government agents who can kill people for littering, even in Wood’s (Demo; DMZ) extreme police state. But this is powerful, provocative stuff, and Jennie 2.5, her body tattooed with symbols and slogans, proves a compelling, complex, and memorable figure. Wood’s bold black-and-white art, heavily graphic-design oriented, sometimes achieves a visceral starkness akin to that of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Strongly recommended.—S.R.

Robins, Scott & Snow Wildsmith. A Parent’s Guide to the Best Kids’ Comics: Choosing Titles Your Children Will Love. Krause. 2012. c.256p. ISBN 9781440229947. pap. $16.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Librarians and bloggers for School Library Journal’s Good Comics for Kids, Robins and Wildsmith share detailed information on 100 core graphic novels for K–12, plus 750 readalikes. This is a first-of-its-kind book for parents, specifically, and so it’s organized by age group, contains educational tie-ins and caveats, and reproduces generously sized full-color pages to convince those “they’re not real books!” snarkmeisters that comics provide appealing and useful content as well as actual words to read and literacy benefits. There’s even a short section about graphic novels on parenting, like Bunny Drop. Every comics-loving librarian will notice favorite titles and series missing, but this isn’t a book for librarians or educators, even though there’s a short bibliography for these two groups. For families, this will work just great as a core list, although I would wish for more titles with prominent characters of color. VERDICT This necessary guidebook for parents belongs in all public libraries; buy an extra for readers’ advisory. Note that librarians and educators must augment kid-ages graphic novel selection through a wider range of sources that include, for example, more titles with nonfiction content and literary adaptations.—M.C.