Wednesday, May 21, 2014

YALSA top ten GNs 2014: Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
Written by Prudence Shen. Illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks.
Published by First Second (2013)

Sometimes I think that cheerleaders must be the most maligned group in fiction. I mean, I'm no expert in cheerleaders in fiction, but they generally seem to be portrayed as stuck up, exclusionary people that only care about looks and money.

But I guess I should explain what this comic is actually about. It begins with the high school robot club and the cheerleaders both wanting school money (the robot club wants new uniforms and the cheerleaders want to go to a robot competition, no wait...). However, there is only enough money for one of the groups (lets ignore that the cheerleaders want $4000 and the robot club only wants $1500), so the school decides that student council will decide who gets the money.

One of the robot club members decides to run for president, while his...friend (?) who is on the basketball team and used to go out with the head cheerleader gets signed up to run against him. Various dastardly election tricks are played by each side until the school decides that nobody gets the money. This part of the book was okay, but reading about high school politics didn't interest me that much.

The robot club decides to enter a robot fighting championship in order to get the money and go to their competition. However in order to do this they have to make their normal robot into a fighting robot, so they have to borrow $1500 from the cheerleaders with the promise that they'll pay for the uniforms with some of the prize money. (And if the cheerleaders have access to that much money why can't they just buy their own uniforms?) I found I enjoyed the comic considerably more after this point as, well, robot fights, but also because the characters' back stories and personalities were better fleshed out through various scenes and dialogue.

Perhaps surprisingly my favourite part of the comic came not from the robot fights, which were all pretty great, but from when the cheerleaders actually showed some compassion towards the only girl in the robot club. While "oh, they were nice all along" is _also_ a stereotype, it did make the characters seem slightly more believable and less one dimensional.

Actually, no, my favourite part of the comic was the art. Faith Erin Hicks seems to be everywhere these days (I mean, she had two books on the YALSA list in 2014!), and it has become obvious what a good artist she has become. Her ability to draw motion is really good (and thankfully so in a comic about robot fights), but I think where she really shines is in the expressions and body language of the characters she draws. She's great at allowing the reader to know how a character feels without them having to say anything at all.

Overall this was pretty okay, though that's clearly damning this book with faint praise. There were definitely parts that I enjoyed, but I also feel that you could cut out about a third of the book and made something that was more interesting (at least to me). Still, I'll gladly read more comics that Hicks drew, and I might check out another graphic novel written by Shen if the subject matter appealed to me more.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

YALSA top ten GNs 2013: Trinity

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb
Written and illustrated by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Published by Hill and Wang (2012)

It's not often that I think of a graphic novel as specifically for young adults. I am forever looking in the teen section in libraries to borrow graphic novels, and complaining that thing X is shelved there, but thing Y is shelved somewhere else, and that none of it makes any sense. I frequently think that by shelving something in the YA section of a library you are decreasing the number of people that will see it and borrow it (or at least the types of people). But that is all just conjecture and could be applied to any book shelved in any section. Maybe we should just put all the books in one big pile*.

Despite that Trinity is definitely what I would consider a YA graphic novel, though to some extent I would struggle why I think that way. I think ultimately it's because I didn't feel as though the book went into as much depth as it could have in regards to basically any element of the story. Everything is told well and clearly, but it also seemed to be a surface telling of what happened. Additionally, the use of explanatory text boxes throughout on many pages reminded me more of picture books or illustrated text than a comic, yet this is clearly not something for children. (I have limited experience dealing with kids, but I can't imagine trying to explain an atom to them.) However, everything did seem to be about the right level for a student in junior high or high school.

Artwise everything was fairly good. I mean, nothing really stood out to me, and I found it a bit weak in places where characters seemed particularly stiff, but it conveyed the information in an effective way and the illustrations describing elements of the science can definitely be beneficial to the reader. However, I was not impressed by the lettering, both in the choice of fonts and the design of the speech balloons.

If someone was interested in reading a graphic novel about this sort of things I'd probably recommend Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick instead. I don't remember exactly what it covered, but Richard Feynman did work for the Manhattan Project, and his biographies present a considerably more human and entertaining account of his experiences there (to be totally honest I'd probably just recommend the books themselves instead of the adaptations, as I thought they were great!). But as a general overview for someone (a younger someone?) who is not aware of the history surrounding this event, Trinity is probably works fine as an introduction to the science and history surrounding this project.

*No we shouldn't.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

YALSA top ten GNs 2012: A Bride’s Story

A Bride’s Story (Volumes 1-3)
Written and illustrated by Kaoru Mori
Published by Yen Press (volumes 1-2, 2011; volume 3, 2012)

Only the first volume of this series was on the YALSA list, but I happened to see the first three in the library, so I picked them all up. To be honest because I didn't look at what this book was about I mistook it for Ooku: The Inner Chambers, which was on the 2010 YALSA list, and I kind of can't believe that I read about six hundred pages of this stuff.

A Bride's Story is set somewhere in central Asia in the late 19th century. At the time when women were married off to other families for money or political connections or any number of other reasons. As the comic begins Amir has been married off to another family, and she is positively ancient by bride standards (she's twenty), while her husband is only 12. The comic basically just follows the day to day activities of Amir as she becomes used to living with a new family.

It is incredibly boring.

Now, I find this kind of shocking as (spoilers ahead) Amir's old family comes and attacks the village she's living in, and in a later volume someone gets thrown into jail. Yet despite this it is just the dullest comic I have read in quite some time. Pages will be devoted to a character, who is never named, carving wood. Or there can be page after page of characters doing embroidery. Or, even worse, page after page of characters just _looking_ at embroidery.

But none of that is my real problem with this comic, my major problem is with the character of Amir. I realized somewhere in here that Amir is not actually a human being. Amir is a robot. Now you might be thinking "What? You said this book was set in the late 19th century, how is she a robot?", but I don't mean that she is a robot made out of mechanical parts (because really, nobody that knows me would ever think that I'd find that a problem). No, Amir is a robot in that she does not have human emotions or react to events like a human would. Instead she is absurdly innocent, verges on being an idiot savant in regards to her capabilities (she's an amazing archer!), who is amazed by _everything_. OH MY GOSH YOU CAN BAKE BREAD! Or you can sew, or there's a horse, or any other incredibly mundane thing astounds her utterly as though she has never seen it before. Amir reacts to events as though she has no prior history of doing or experiencing anything. She also becomes overwhelmingly devoted to her husband for no apparent reason whatsoever, which reminds me of robots who are devoted to their creator because, well, why not? It's kind of creepy.

Now this title has a lot of positive reviews online, and Kaoru Mori also had a title (Emma) on the 2008 YALSA list, so clearly she has many people who enjoy her work a lot, but I pretty clearly don't see the appeal of this comic. I will say that A Bride's Story is considerably better than Emma for two reasons. First, while the main character in both series is incredibly docile and passive, Amir is at least capable of doing _something_ (shooting arrows at things), while I don't think the main character in Emma did anything other than be embarrassed and polite, and second the art is really nice. I just wish it was being used on a comic I actually cared about.