Tuesday, December 31, 2013

YALSA 2013 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens

Every year since 2007 Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) section of the American Library Association (ALA) has created both a long list and a top ten list of "great graphic novels for teens". You can see all the lists here. Previously they had included some graphic novels on their "best books for young adults" lists.

I was recently invited to give a guest lecture on the history of comics and graphic novels for children and young adults, and upon looking at these lists realized that I had read less than half of the book on the top ten lists (and hadn't even heard of others!). As a so called "expert" on graphic novels in libraries I didn't really think that this was appropriate, and decided to read as many of the volumes that I hadn't read as possible.

I'll be reviewing them as I read (or reread) them, and this page will eventually contain links to all the books from 2013. Here's the full list of nominations from 2013, and the top ten list. They occasionally have weird formatting or credits.

My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm.

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (Volume 1) by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli.

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks.

A Flight of Angels by Rebecca Guay, and others.

The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell.

Stargazing Dog by Takashi Murakami.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier.

Daredevil (Volume 1) by Mark Waid, Paolo Manuel Rivera, and Marcos Martin.

Monday, December 30, 2013

YALSA top ten 2012: Scarlet

Written by Brian Michael Bendis. Illustrated by Alex Maleev.
Published by Icon/Marvel (2011)

Brian Michael Bendis is probably one of the biggest creators in the "mainstream" (ie. superhero) comic book industry. He's been one of the most successful writers at Marvel for over a decade, writing major books like Avengers and X-Men and leading overarching storylines and events. His "David Mamet-like" dialogue has influenced pretty much all of superhero comics, and for the most part I really don't care for his work.

Actually, that's not really fair. Bendis is nothing if not prolific. He's written hundreds of comics, and when he first started in the industry he was also drawing his own stuff. I enjoyed his early crime books like Jinx and Torso, I didn't get really into Powers, his cops in a superhero world comic, but I'd probably read more of it if you gave it to me, I remember really enjoying Fortune and Glory, his comic about his experiences in Hollywood, and I've read a bunch of his (massive) run on Ultimate Spider-Man (and will read more at some point).

But at the same time, I've hated (or at least not cared for) a lot of his comics. I'm not the biggest Avengers fan, but I pretty much avoided that entire corner of the Marvel Universe for the entire time that Bendis was writing those titles. (When I did read some I found them boring and blah.) He recently became the main writer of the various X-Men related titles, and I was kind of disappointed, as I'd actually been getting back into those books and was reading and enjoying both Kieron Gillen and Jason Aaron's books.

So all of this is to say that I generally don't go out of my way to read Bendis' comics, and if this book hadn't appeared on this list I'd never have bothered seeking it out.

Scarlet is the story is of an early 20s girl who lives in Portland and has her boyfriend killed by a corrupt cop. He gets away with it, and so she vows that she'll get revenge. Does she try to expose corrupt cops? Perhaps try to get them fired or whatever? No, she just kills them. And everyone loves her!

There are definitely some parallels between what the characters in this comic say and what happened with the Occupy protests (ie. having to take stuff into their own hands, because the existing system is broken/corrupt and set up to perpetuate itself), and it's kind of surprising that this series predated all of those events. But I think that's what really frustrated me about this book: it's about dealing with problems that exist in the real world, and instead of the character realistically trying to make a difference they just kill people. Killing people isn't the answer!

I mean, I agree with much of what the characters in this book (and the people involved with the Occupy movement) are saying: a lot of police officers are corrupt assholes (I still feel a little sick whenever I hear about cases like this), the government is horrible, corporations have far too much power, etc. But you know what? I really don't think that in our society killing people is the answer. Especially in the ridiculous vigilante style that is demonstrated in this comic. Scarlet kills these cops, and says that they're corrupt, but never seems to present any evidence about this. Yet people love her anyway. I mean, I know it's set in Portland, but even then...

So yeah, I feel as though this comic takes a real, important event, and reduces it to something that should be ignored. That by making it into a ridiculous revenge fantasy it takes away from the legitimacy of real events that have happened. Yeah, I guess the Occupy movements have proved that nothing will change yet, but I still don't want to start putting people up against the wall when the revolution comes.

As for the art, Maleev's style is not going to be to everyone's liking. His artwork is distinct and recognizable: it's heavily photo referenced, but also grimy and dark. Personally, I like the art quite a bit, though I have two major complaints. The first is that reading the script at the back of the book revealed a few instances of things that I did not think were conveyed particularly clearly through the artwork. Looking at the art after reading the script I could say "oh sure, that's what's happening I guess", but I feel that a fair number of people might miss what was happening their first time through.

The other thing is something I've found in several Bendis comics (though it's possible they're comics Bendis did _with_ Maleev, so it could be either of their faults): pages that don't read like you would expect them to. This isn't even a case of weird panel layout, instead you get (for example) two side by side pages each with six equally sized panels on them. The panels are entirely contained within their own pages, so it's not immediately obvious that you have to read the entire top row of panels and then the bottom row. That's now how comic pages are supposed to work!

Also, the script mentions that a bunch of people in the comic should look like "punks", since nobody actually looks like that either this was an early version of the script that they moved away from, Bendis is referring to all young people as punks (ie. Bendis is old), or Maleev has never seen an actual punk in his life. Also also, the cover sexualizes Scarlet in a kind of creepy way that isn't actually in the comics themselves. I'm not sure if that's good or bad or somewhere in between.

Even ignoring all of that (the good and the bad), it becomes incredibly hard to recommend the first volume of a series when there is no conclusion, and the end doesn't seem to be coming any time soon. In the two and a half years since this book was published a grand total of two more issues have come out.  It's not as though Bendis doesn't write many comics, he regularly has five or six out in a single month, and he's still a big star with Marvel so it's not like he couldn't do this series if he wanted to. Maybe that's the thing though, perhaps he knows that Marvel won't always be willing to give him this much work so he should just go with it for as long as possible. I mean, he's got his whole life ahead of him to write stuff like this, so why not spend a few years/decades earning six figures writing X-Men comics? (Of course I'm sure it didn't help that Bendis and Maleev did 12 issues of Moon Knight from 2011-2012.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

YALSA top ten 2007: Castle Waiting Volume 1

Castle Waiting (Volume 1)

Written and illustrated by Linda Medley.  
Published by Fantagraphics (2006)

I'd read some of Castle Waiting ages ago. What issues, I'm not sure, but I think I pulled at least three or four out of a dollar bin back when I was an undergrad (ie. forever ago). I remember liking it fine, though never bothering to seek out more (of course, I don't think it was even really that easy to seek out more before this collection came out).

This is a big, fat collection of comics, and it's kind of interesting to see how they were released originally. Medley originally self published the first few issues of Castle Waiting in the late '90s after receiving a Xeric Grant. Then in 2000 Jeff Smith's Cartoon Books released a few issues (who knew they published anything other than Jeff Smith comics?), then it was self published again, then Fantagraphics picked it up. Geeze. Maybe the weird and haphazard way this book was released (with many gaps) explains the kind of strange way that the series unfolds.

The first three issues retell the sleeping beauty fairytale, then all of that is completely ignored and we jump forward like 80 years or something. It seems sort of strange to me that you could read this series without the first three issues and you wouldn't lose anything. I guess Medley published her original story, and decided to just use the same title or something. I dunno.

There are then several issues that seem like they're what the series is "really" about. A pregnant woman arrives at the castle, which now serves as a refuge for various oddball characters. The castle is at this point a place where anyone can come and stay, though it appears that it's at the end of its life as there are few inhabitants and much of the castle is now abandoned.

We get introduced to the characters, the new woman wants to be the librarian in the castle, and then....seven issues of flashback telling the entire backstory of one of the characters. I'm not opposed to this, I'm not even opposed to the (multiple) nested flashbacks that are used in the story. And the story (about bearded nuns) is even good and enjoyable (I'm pretty sure I read some of these issues all those years ago). But these issues finish off the volume, and to me it really felt as though Medley had absolutely no idea where she wanted this series to go, or what she wanted to do with it.

However, none of this is to say that this volume isn't worth reading. I liked it! The world Medley has created is interesting, and I want to know the backstories of pretty much all the characters (a knight who is a horse, a weird birdman who runs the castle, a blacksmith who doesn't talk, a cook/cleaner and her son who don't actually seem that interesting until you actually hear their story in the second volume, a bearded nun, assorted demons, and the woman who gives birth to a somewhat monstrous child).

I just found the way it was presented kind of strange.

After reading this volume I went out and got the second, which had a vastly improved narrative structure. It still has lots of flashbacks, but they generally seem to be related to what's going on, or at least don't overtake the entire story. I felt as though I was learning about the characters while an ongoing plot was happening. Of course it also just stops. Like, seems like there are pages missing stops. I discovered that this is because it was released before the final three issues of this story were printed (or even drawn). Fantagraphics released a "definitive edition" that features another 70 pages of story, and is completely relettered (the lettering for much of volume 2 is, while not awful, not very good). You can buy the last three issues for $8, but it still seems super weird that the book was released the way it was, even if "it looked as if Castle Waiting was definitely over".

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

YALSA top ten 2007: Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. (Volume 1)

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. (Volume 1): This is What They Want
Written by Warren Ellis. Illustrated by Stuart Immonen.
Published by Marvel Comics (2006)

A friend of mine used to have a zine that was focused around monsters. Each issue spotlighted a different monster, and she'd have a section of movie reviews which she called "what I remember reviews". It didn't matter how long ago she saw the movie, or how much (if anything) she remembered about it, she'd write something about it. That's going to be the case with some of the reviews of these YALSA top ten books too, I have actually read a bunch of them, though in some cases it was quite some time ago...

Nextwave was a title I read when it was originally coming out as single issues. I'd have happily read it again, but the VPL doesn't have either volume in their catalogue. Honestly though I'm not that surprised, cause they'd probably have been stolen if they ever did have them.

Warren Ellis is (twice over) the reason I'm so into comic books. First with his run on Excalibur which got me to start going to comic book shops so that I could get every issue, and then later with the Warren Ellis Forum where I discovered many, many different creators and titles, and even made friends! However, while Ellis has written some stuff I've liked a lot (and has been influential to the comics medium), there hasn't been much released in the last decade that I can say I thought was really good. Now admittedly he's releasing a lot less material than he used to, but I just read through his bibliography and was like "oh yeah, I read all of Freak Angels, that was pretty decent", but keep in mind that I had completely forgotten that I read a six volume series.

However, Nextwave is the last title that Ellis was involved with that I think can be classified as "really good"! It's a superhero comic, but it's more of a comedy than most "mainstream" superhero comics are. The main cast are a bunch of minor characters that not many people cared about, and over all it's pretty ridiculous. For some of the characters Ellis pretty much just ignored the existing personality traits entirely and made up new ones. While this is frequently seen as bad writing, in this case the new versions of the characters seemed to be far more interesting than the ones that had existed before and later appearances of some of the characters, namely Machine Man and his newly human/fleshy one hating, beer drinking self, have reflected this.

I honestly can't remember that much about the art other than that it was "good", but Stuart Immonen is a pretty rad artist overall, and Ellis definitely wrote him some great scenes to illustrate in this comic.

When it was first announced that the series was going to end at issue 12, I wasn't that sad as I thought the comedy aspect of the title would get old if it had kept coming out indefinitely. But once it was finished I did miss it, and wish there was slightly more of it in existence. So yeah, if you're at all interested in superheroes as a subject this is probably worth reading, but if you don't spend your spare time reading Wikipedia articles about obscure Marvel characters be prepared to have some of the jokes go over your head.

Plus it has an official theme song! How many comics get that?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stolen Books

I read a lot of graphic novels from libraries, and one thing that really frustrates me is when the next volume in a series I'm reading is unavailable because it's been stolen (or "missing", but let's be honest, it's probably been stolen). In these cases the library has actually ordered, catalogued, and shelved the book, but someone (or someones) have decided they want it forever. This is of particular issue with many comics due to their serial nature. How often is volume 4 of a series going to be checked out of volume 3 is missing? (Actually, based on the examples below the answer is still "all the time", but shhh.)

Today, I was in the Central Branch of the library and saw Wolverine and the X-Men Volume 2. I thought I'd read volume 1, but couldn't remember, but I grabbed it anyway. Just now I checked the Vancouver Public Library's (VPL) website to see if I could read the other volumes in the series. This is what I found.

Wolverine and the X-Men Volume 1: Six copies, all current have the status "Trace" (ie. "we can't find it.")

Wolverine and the X-Men Volume 2: Six copies, five have the status "Trace", the other is the one I borrowed.

Wolverine and the X-Men Volume 3: Six copies, all currently have the status "Trace".

Wolverine and the X-Men Volume 4: Six copies, three currently have the status "Trace", three are currently checked out.

Wolverine and the X-Men Alpha and Omega (a spin-off miniseries): Four copies, all currently have the status "Trace".

(More recent volumes of the series are not currently held by the VPL.)

So that's 28 separate items in total, and 24 of them are missing! Weren't RFID tags supposed to fix this problem? All of these items are less than two years old, and the longest the VPL has had any of them is just over 18 months. All volumes (except the most recent), have at least one hold request.

A librarian at Surrey Public Library said that true crime books were the most frequently stolen, while Terry Prachett used to brag that he was the author who had the most books stolen from libraries, but my incredibly biased anecdotal evidence seems to imply that the actually winners (losers?) are X-Men comics. I decided to do some research into what the most frequently stolen books in libraries were.

There are a number of articles about books stolen from bookshops (I liked this one), and it's interesting to see how much bookstore theft is motivated by people wanting to sell the books to second hand bookshops. In contrast, books stolen from libraries tend to be ones that people actually want to read (though how much reading someone does for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition I don't know...). Presumably this is because most used bookstores (hopefully) won't buy books that are clearly from libraries.

However, the references I found to books stolen from libraries didn't mention graphic novels, but to be honest I'm not that surprised. They're generally high cost items, that don't take that long to read, and frequently go out of print fairly quickly. Still, I just wish that whoever's stealing all those X-Men comics would stop so that I could read them. I mean, I generally don't want to _own_ the things, and the chances of me buying any of them are incredibly slim. That's why I want libraries to have them available!

Monday, December 16, 2013

YALSA top ten 2007: Sloth

Written and illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez
Published by DC/Vertigo (2006)

First review on this site and I start by saying something that clearly marks me out as a horrible person amongst comic book fans: I don't really care for Gilbert Hernandez's comics.

This isn't just based on Sloth. I've read some of Love and Rockets (the first volume of...some edition, the square-ish ones?), Grip: The Strange World of Men, and Speak of the Devil (maybe?). I barely remember anything about them other than them being at best "okay", and a friend complaining about the huge busted women in the art (she was surprised to hear that Hernandez was an award winning and respected creator).

Sloth is about a high school student who wakes up from a coma and is now just really slow. He moves slow, he wants his band to play slower music, he sleeps all the time. There's a bit about some weird monster that maybe exists in a lemon orchard, but then it just falls into a dream world or something. I'm kind of shocked I'm saying this about a book with a monster and a possible alternative dimension, but I just found it really boring.

Marble Season, another Gilbert Hernandez book, is on one of the later lists, so I'll get around to it eventually. But based on the free comic book day preview, which I don't think I bothered finishing, I don't really expect to enjoy it that much either.

This graphic novel is from YALSA's 2007 top ten great graphic novels for teens.