Saturday, December 19, 2015

YALSA Top Ten GNs 2012: Zahra's Paradise

Zahra's Paradise
Written by Amir. Illustrated by Khalil.
Published by First Second (2011)

As of this moment I have read 482 graphic novels this year. Yes, that is a completely absurd number. Yes, I am insane.

The perhaps more interesting number is "1". That is the number of graphic novels I have failed to finish this year. Considering the quality of some of the stuff I have finished, that there was only one graphic novel I didn't finish seems to indicate that it was truly terrible. Except it wasn't. The book in question was fine, I just couldn't face reading any more gothic literature after it being chosen as that month's genre for my book club.

However, if I wasn't reading it because it was on a YALSA top ten graphic novels for teens list (and for some reason I'm trying to read them all) I never would have finished Zahra's Paradise.

The plot at first claims to be about a mother finding her son after the the political protests which happened in Iran in 2009, and there are places where the book seems to be from her point of view, but for the most part it seems to be about her other son. Of course, it doesn't help that both characters are complete ciphers and that we learn basically nothing about them, their feelings (beyond "this situation is not good" in regards to the arrests after the protest), or their interests. The missing brother is better developed, but at the same time the book takes a strangely long amount of time telling us about how much he loves ice water. I'm also really not fond of the main young female character, who seems both politically active (helping to uncover government secrets), and weirdly naive.

Of course, this book tends to take a long time to tell you anything. It is densely written, and almost every page is filled to bursting with words. In some comics this is fine, but here it really seemed like I was slogging through dialogue and character's thoughts that didn't add very much to the story. I think this demonstrates Amir's background as a journalist, since overwriting comics can definitely be an issue for those coming to the medium from more prose heavy ones. (Show don't tell!) Despite the general wordiness of this comic, it also seems to leave out a lot of background information that would help people (especially young people) make sense of what's going on (and why).

Another problem I had concerning the writing was the number of foreign words used in this book. That's a pretty common thing to see, and it's normally not that big of a deal, but despite having footnotes translating some of the words and _two_ glossaries there were still words and cultural references the meaning of which I had no idea. (Though admittedly, reading the glossaries probably gives you the best context for Iran's political system.)

In comparison to the writing, the art by Khalil is actually pretty good. I don't think I ever had problems following what was going on, and I appreciated the hand lettering (which I assume he also did, nobody else is credited). The combination of the art and lettering styles reminded me of old Mad Magazines, which is a little disconcerting when you consider the content of Zahra's Paradise. There are also some pages that I think look really great (see below), but more in the way that political cartoons do, making me wonder where most of the artist's experiences lie.

I can understand why this graphic novel made it onto the YALSA list: it was fairly topical at the time, it exposes people to other cultures and ways of life, and its plot is centred around a young person. But, I don't think it manages to provide enough context for people to understand the whys of the story, and fails at making the characters seem human enough to care about. If you want to read a graphic novel dealing with Iran's political climate you should read Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and if you want to find out more about the 2009 political unrest in Iran, well, there's always the Wikipedia article.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

YALSA Top Ten GNs 2011: Ghostopolis

Written and illustrated by Doug TenNapel.
Published by Graphix (2010)

Ghostopolis is about a city for dead people. Not just ghosts live there, but also skeletons, mummies, (mummys?), giant bugs, goblins, and other weird folk. Garth, a living boy, accidentally gets sucked into Ghostopolis when an agent of the Supernatural Immigration Task Force accidentally zaps him there (along with a skeleton horse). He has to deal with being a living boy trapped in this world for the dead, while people back on Earth desperately try to get to Ghostopolis and save him.

Doug TenNapel is the creator of Earthworm Jim, a video game that I enjoyed playing for the SNES a long time ago (I also really dug the cartoon and can probably still sing the theme song). He's also produced an almost surprising number of graphic novels (over ten). But more importantly, he's a conservative Christian, which has more or less caused me to stay away from his work in general.

That was not always the case, as I bought his first graphic novel Creature Tech when it was originally released (and before I realized he was Christian), and for the most part I enjoyed it's weirdness. Except... Generally I don't think a book or comic or whatever can be ruined by a single page, but for Creature Tech I made an exception. The final page (and it's Christian message) really ruined that book for me. I don't care if you write a story about the Shroud of Turin as a magic object, but I'd prefer if it was just that, and not a symbol of religious power or something.

Anyway, back to Ghostpolis. TenNapel is a good artist, and I can definitely see how a comic filled with mummy warriors, sentient dinosaur skeletons, werewolves, and gross bug monsters would definitely appeal to kids. Even I think they're pretty cool looking.

But, the story itself has some problems.

The first is the bad guy. He's convinced that Garth is out to get him, and so spends his time tracking him down and attacking him. Of course, if he hadn't done this Garth would have gone back home and never encountered him. This isn't necessarily a problem with the plot, it's more that the bad guy is just dumb.

The second is a larger problem that is pretty common in fiction (though apparently not common enough for me to find on TVtropes): a competent female is paired with an incompetent male. (I didn't just make this trope up right?) Frank Gallows is the agent who sent Garth to the spirit world, he is kind of a total screw up, gets fired from his job, and is generally bad at everything. His ex-fiance is Claire Voyant, who is capable and competent and built a teleportation device and for some reason gets back together with Frank. There's a lack of representation of characters who aren't white and male (or a bug) in general, so this kind of sticks out.

There's also a message about something at the end (and the story put a little too much emphasis on people having children for my taste), but overall the story is fine. Of course, there are the "heavy-handed Christian overtones" that I didn't even pick up on. Looking into it more, apparently in the part where I thought everyone was getting transported to another dimension/planet to be reborn as aliens, they are actually going to Heaven. Dang, my version is totally better.

There are also some subplots that aren't fully developed, plot holes, and the ending seems somewhat sudden and random. The more I write about this book the worse it seems to be, but kids probably won't care that much. It has skeleton dinosaurs and monsters! (Though I'm not sure how much it would appeal to teens...)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2013: The Silence of Our Friends

The Silence of Our Friends
Written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos. Illustrated by Nate Powell.
Published by First Second (2012)

I actually kind of hate comics like this. Not because they're bad, but just because they remind me of how horrible people are. And yeah, sure, sometimes it's good to be reminded, but I guess I already think people are horrible so much of the time.

The Silence of Our Friends is set in 1960s Texas which, if you were unaware, is super racist. The story focuses on two families: one white and one black and...I don't know if it's even worth explaining. People are racist, the white family tries to become friends with the black family, people are racist, there's a civil rights protest where the police shoot at people a bunch, people are racist, there's a trial where black people are accused of shooting at the cops, people are racist, etc. People were horrible, though not everyone was horrible. Also, people were horrible in different ways. Maybe some hope. The end.

I dunno. Nate Powell's art was pretty nice I guess, but while I can appreciate his art and understand that other people really like it, I've never found it that appealing. I understand why this is on an American list for best graphic novels for teens, because it is important that people (especially young people) learn about what happened in the past (or they are doomed to repeat it, etc.), but I guess I'd rather just read comics about giant robots beating each other up. I guess that is the way in which I am horrible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Olympia Timberland Library

I recently went to Olympia for the Olympia Zine Fest, and the Olympia Zine Librarians (un)conference. Both were fun events!

A talk about zines and the (un)conference were both held in the Olympia branch of the Timberland Regional Library. The library wasn't that big, but it did have a pretty impressive (and much loved) zine collection. Awesome : )

YALSA top ten GNs 2013: A Flight of Angels

A Flight of Angels
Conceived and illustrated by Rebecca Guay. Written by Holly Black, Bill Willingham, Alisa Kwitney, Louise Hawes, and Todd Mitchell.
Published by Vertigo (2011)

Rebecca Guay is an artist who I mostly know from her Magic: The Gathering cards. Her cards have a pretty specific style, and it's one that I enjoy.

Despite this, I don't think I've ever read any of her comic work. In fact, I had no idea she even had comic work until just now when I looked it up. And while seeing that she drew the Black Orchid Vertigo series doesn't really surprise me, it did seem a bit strange that she drew a Green Lantern comic (though that specific Green Lantern comic seems like it might fit her style fairly well).

While it seems obvious now, I had not expected A Flight of Angels to feel like a throwback to the earlyish days of Vertigo.  For a long time Vertigo (the imprint that published this comic) was best known for Sandman and Sandman like things (e.g. fantasy stuff about stories). This was no doubt helped by the fact that Sandman was their biggest seller, Neil Gaiman has a huge following, and that after Sandman ended there were a plethora of spinoff series such as The Dreaming, Lucifer, and so forth. But at the time Vertigo also put out a lot of (at least vaguely) similar titles, to various degrees of success. Eventually Vertigo shed this perception, and now they're known for...uhm, I dunno. Publishing lots of different stuff that doesn't sell that well?

A Flight of Angels is a series of short stories about angels in various settings, with a framing sequence set in some vague fantasy world. There are angels in the garden of Eden, angels in modern day cities, angels in a fairytale version of olden days Russia, angels in Victorian England, and angels in Heaven. For the most part I didn't care. The stories range from "that was pretty okay" to "I forgot that was even in this book".

However, I suppose the stories aren't really the main selling point here, that would be the Guay's art. It is not my favourite comic book art ever, but at the same time I can see it being the favourite of someone else. All of the art in this volume is painted by Guay, and she changes styles between the various stories. Each style manages to effectively capture the feel of the story it's illustrating. Some of the individual panels are also really nice, but for whatever reason they didn't really stick in my memory.

One final complaint: the lettering in the story set in Russia features Cyrllic characters used instead of English language ones. I find this annoying (mostly because I actually know the Cyrllic alphabet). This story also used other...questionable fonts, which surprised me considering the book was lettered by Todd Klein, but I guess everyone has off days.

If you like the sort of Vertigo fantasy stuff I mentioned earlier, you would probably enjoy this book. I didn't. That's not to say I don't enjoy Vertigo fantasy stuff. I loved Sandman, and it's one of the reasons I still read and love comics. But I could never get into most of the spinoffs and related titles, and A Flight of Angels seems as though it could easily be one of the ones I didn't enjoy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2015: 47 Ronin

47 Ronin
Written by Mike Richardson. Illustrated by Stan Sakai.
Published by Dark Horse (2014).

Hey! Now I've read all of the 2015 top ten GNs! Of course I've only reviewed half of them, but that's because I'd read the other five before the YALSA list was announced.

I started this project (long ago) because I was looking at a list of YALSA top ten graphic novels (for 2013 I think) and realized I hadn't read any of them. As someone who reads a lot of comics, and who intends to work in libraries, that kind of bothered me. Shouldn't I have read these? Or at least know what the are?

So my initial goal was just to read all of the YALSA top ten graphic novels (or at least all of the ones I could find), and I read a bunch! But then I realized it might be a better project if I also reviewed them. That would help me figure out what made a good graphic novel for these lists (and for library collections).

Of course, it really shouldn't have taken this long (I think I've average 1.5 reviews a month since I started), but I guess I'm a huge slacker. Still, it's nice to have something to force me to write stuff other than Two Fisted Librarians.

The story of the forty-seven ronin is one that is well known in Japan. It's based on a real event that happened in the 18th century (here's the Wikipedia page) that has been adapted into various media multiple times, and shows the complete and utter insanity and stupidity of codes of honour.

Lord Asano is summoned to the shogun's court in the capital. He journeys there, but before he can begin his duties he has to learn proper court etiquette. He's taught by Kira, a court official, who while a good teacher, is also pretty corrupt. He demands a bribe from Asano, but Asano refuses to pay. Kira then begins to act in ways so as to lead to Asano appearing foolish in front of others. He doesn't tell him that meeting places have been changed, he claims to have given different instructions than he actually gave, and he finally just insults him in front of other people. Asano manages to keep his cool for a while, but eventually  is driven too far and freaks out, attacking Kira with his sword.

Now, the attacking might have been justified, but apparently drawing your sword in the shogun's palace for any reason is punishable by death. There is a overly quick investigation into the incident, Asano commits ritual suicide, and his holdings are seized by the government. The samurai who worked for Asano want revenge, but are convinced by Oshi (who had been Asano's right-hand man) to wait until the right moment to strike.

[Spoilers follow.]

After a couple of years they accomplish their goal after some misdirection (pretending to be drunken idiots, etc.) and kill Kira. Then all 47 of them surrender, and they are given the option to die an honorable death and commit ritual suicide. As interesting a historical story this may be, it really just indicates to me how completely and utterly insane Japanese culture was (and is?).

The idea that because of committing a "shameful" act you should kill yourself is stupid. But I can't say "these characters act like idiots so this is a bad book" because these are events that actually happened. The story is well told, and all of the relevant details appear to be included (though I'm not sure how much people with absolutely no knowledge of 18th century Japanese culture would have trouble understanding).

The real important part of this comic is the artwork, by Stan Sakai. Sakai is best known for his creation Usagi Yojimbo, a samurai rabbit character that he's been creating adventures for since 1984(!). He's written and drawn more than 200 issues of Usagi Yojimbo, but 47 Ronin is (by far) the longest project he's ever drawn that he didn't also write. If you're familiar with Usagi Yojimbo you'll know that Sakai is really good at drawing cartoon animals having samurai adventures. In fact, it's kind of weird seeing him drawn humans in this story, but it doesn't take away from the quality of the artwork.

Sakai's art is never going to be mistaken for being incredibly realistic, but even with the lack of detail (people generally just have dots for eyes) what is there is capable of showing a lot of range. The facial expressions and body language in his characters is capable of conveying a lot of information, and their actions seem natural and not posed. Sakai has also clearly done a lot of research into the buildings, clothing, and events from this time period, and while I can't say it's all accurate, it definitely at least feels accurate to me.

The historical event this comic is based on is incredibly stupid, but this version of the story was clearly created with a lot of care, craftsmanship, and attention to detail. If you want to read a samurai comic that's not excessively bloody, this one is worth reading. Though really, I think I'd rather just read more Usagi Yojimbo.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2013: Stargazing Dog

Stargazing Dog 
Written and illustrated by Takashi Murakami.
Published by NBM (2011).

Have you heard of Into the Wild? It's about a true story about a guy who wandered off into the Alaskan wilderness and died of starvation. Some people probably think it's romantic. Stargazing Dog is a somewhat similar story, except told from the point of view of a dog.

To put all of my biases up front, I don't really like dogs, and this comic kind of provides examples of why. Specifically, their personalities and apparently unending loyalty are not things I view as positives (though I am aware that many other people do). So a comic told from the point of view of a dog (and not an incredibly intelligent one) that seems to in part about how great that loyalty is has an uphill battle with me.

A girl finds a puppy, and convinces her parents to adopt it. Like most children, she soon pays little attention to the animal and her parents end up taking care of it. The human father, referred to as "Daddy" by the dog, seems to spend more time hanging out with, and talking to, the dog than he does to his wife and child. Eventually, he loses his job, loses his family, and goes off on a doomed road trip where more bad things happen to him and he dies (not really a spoiler, since it's revealed on the first page).

What really pissed me off was the afterward, where Murakami stated that his reason for creating this comic was because:
"In the past, he ["Daddy"] would have been an ordinary, good father.
However, in today's environment, it's adept or die. And that's not right. I really feel fed up with this hideous situation."
And really? Fuck that. He may have been an "ordinary" father, but in no way was he a good one. He paid no attention to his wife or child in any way, and was so uninterested in their lives and feelings, that he is shocked when his wife wants a divorce. That's hardly a "good" father in my eyes (though maybe it says something about Japanese society and familial expectations).

The back cover says that this is an "inspiring" story, but I'm not sure how I'm supposed to be inspired. A guy doesn't get his own way, so starves to death in the middle of nowhere while condemning an animal to the same fate? The message seems to be that if things aren't going your way you should leave everything behind, never ask anyone for help, and die because you're incredibly stubborn. This is even pointed out in a later part of the story where a character says "If he had gone to see you for some advice, Mr. Okutsu. He wouldn't have been dead now." 

Kind of weirdly, this manga was actually flipped so that it reads left-to-right like western books. You can definitely notice it as there are some signs in the pages where signs are backwards (and so are all of the Japanese sound effects), and there are references to right and left that don't always match up with the art. It's kind of strange to see a book published in this format so recently, as it seems the vast majority of manga is now published in right-to-left format. One of the complaints of flipping manga is that it brings out flaws in the artwork, and the awkwardness of some of the panels here seems to indicate some truth to that. Apart from that the artwork is well done. The dogs are drawn well, and the rest of the story telling is pretty clear (though there are some problems with scale).

But really, if you want to read a comic about a homeless person in Japan, read Disappearance Diary by Hideo Azuma. It's way more interesting, in part because it's an autobiography. Reading that review kind of reveals a lot more about the societal pressures that exist in Japan than this comic does. But because Stargazing Dog was created for a Japanese audience, all of that knowledge can just be assumed by the author as already known, and none of it has to be said on the page. If this comic actually explained some of the pressures of Japanese life it might have made "Daddy" a more sympathetic character. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2015: Bad Machinery vol. 3: The Case of the Simple Soul

Bad Machinery Vol. 3: The Case of the Simple Soul
Written and illustrated by John Allison.
Published by Oni Press (2014)

Bad Machinery is, as the subtitle may hint at, a sort of mystery comic featuring children in the fictional English town of Tackleford. The kids who primarily feature are two groups of three: one made up of girls, and one made up of boys. They're all around 11 or 12 (I think) so there's a fair amount of fighting/arguing/will you be my boy/girlfriending going on as well as whatever's going on in the background (which, in this case, is a series of fires and a weird troll thing that lives under a bridge).

And that "weird troll thing" is the kind of thing that makes Allison's comics great (though not in this particular instance*). This is not your average small English town. There is a robot who goes to the school, there are magic spells and curses at the soccer/football pitch, weird goblin creatures in the woods, a time hole in a school cupboard, and lots more weird and wonderful stuff happening in Tackleford all the time (kind of as though it were a nicer version of Sunnydale).

The human characters themselves are more normal, but that doesn't mean they act (or, as this review mentions, speak) naturally. But that's generally part of the charm. Another large part of the appeal for me is Allison's art, which I really love. Characters have distinctive styles and fashions (with individual items of clothing changing), his expressions and body language are great, the story flows (which is impressive considering this was original published one page a day), and the flat colouring works remarkably well with the cartoonish art style.

Allison has been making webcomics since the late 1990s (e.g. forever in internet terms), and while he's had several titles, they're all interconnected and characters from one may show up in another. I started reading his stuff in the early 2000s when he was working on his second title, Scary-Go-Round. I liked it enough to read all of the archives and buy several books from him.

However, at some point after Bad Machinery started I apparently stopped reading. This seems kind of strange, as I'm still excited by him as a creator. I've read all three volumes of the Bad Machinery collected editions (admittedly mostly from the library), and I was buying his print Scary Go Round spin-off series Giant Days until it got extended to 12 issues and I couldn't find issue 4 (I still intend to get the collections), but I stopped reading his free comic on the internet.

So what turned me off a comic by a creator I still at least think I like? Well, part of it is possibly the format of the collection. Its size (more than 30 cm/12 inches wide) shows off the artwork in a lovely fashion, but is kind of too big to fit on my shelf and is even somewhat unwieldy to read. But that doesn't say why I stopped reading the webcomic, and I think the reason behind that is that I found the children that this story focused on considerably less interesting than the adults in the other comics. If the recent Giant Days series had been about these (children) characters I probably wouldn't have been interested, but since it was about the characters in university I was. I would say that I'm not that interested in stories about children, but while that may be true in a broad sense I'm still happy to read certain ones I consider good (Yotsuba&!). I guess I'm just not that interested in reading stories about these children. Though looking through the artwork in this volume again, I'm kind of tempted to catchup on the webcomic, so maybe that will change.

Since this was a webcomic you can read it all online for free. Here's where The Case of the Simple Soul begins.

* Allison frequently includes completely fictional creatures (such as Desmond Fishman) in his comics. However the "troll" in this one kind of bothered me. His appearance seems far too much like a human, and combined with the way he speaks and acts I think it could be taken as making fun of people with developmental disabilities. I don't think this was Allison's intention, and I hope I'm the only person that even considered this, but the problem could have been avoided by making the troll red or something.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2015: Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki

Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki
Original Story by Mamoru Hosoda. Art by Yu.
Published by Yen Press (2014)

Hana is a college student who falls in love with a mysterious guy in one of her classes. Turns out he's a werewolf. So she has werewolf babies with him, then he dies, so she moves to the middle of nowhere to raise her werewolf kids. Boring stuff happens, I don't care.

(Perhaps the most interesting thing about this comic being on the list is that its an adaptation of an anime. How many adaptations usually make it onto "best of" lists? I don't think there have been any on the YALSA GN lists before, though I could be wrong.)

I'm not a romance fan, I'm not a fan of rural stories, and I'm not a fan of of stories about children, so this book already had multiple strikes against it. Now, that's not to say that I can't read and enjoy stories that fulfill those criteria. Scott Pilgrim is a romance. Yotsuba&! is about children. Both of those are incredibly great! (I'm sure there's some rural thing I enjoy, but I can't think of it right now.)

There was a grand total of one scene in this comic that I enjoyed. It featured a bunch of girls talking about flowers and other things they found, then the werewolf girl is like "look what I found!" and brandishes a snake. Pretty funny. The same joke is repeated, to diminishing returns, on the next page, except she has a box full of animal skeletons. Great! Except the reaction from the other kids is enough to make the werewolf girl decide to change who she is, and become considerably more introverted. Later she's harassed and physically assaulted by a boy, she hurts him while trying to get away, and blames herself forever, and later there is elementary school romance between them. Dude really just needed to learn to leave people alone who say "leave me alone".

So, what does this story teach you? Don't tell anyone about your past, lie to everyone in your family, lie to everyone outside of your family, don't go to school, change who you are to please other people, no means yes, be a total dick to your mom who loves and cares about you.

Was there anything about this that I enjoyed? Well, it was a quick read, so didn't take that long, and I borrowed it from the library, so I didn't spend any money on it. Oh, and the way sound effects were dealt with was good: the Japanese sound effect was left unedited, and in a small font size it was transliterated into the Roman alphabet and translated into English. Everything else I hated, and if it hadn't been a library book I probably would have thrown it across the room. However, I am clearly in the minority, as the vast number of reviews online seem to have loved it. I honestly can't really understand that, but I guess I'm just clearly not the target audience for this book.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2010: I Kill Giants

I Kill Giants
Written by Joe Kelly. Illustrated by J.M. Ken Niimura.
Published by Image Comics (2009).

I've heard people talking about I Kill Giants since it came out, and I've looked at it, but I'd never read it until now. And even then, I'm only reading it because I've run out of renewals from the library and its overdue. What is it about this comic that has made me totally uninterested in reading it for years? The art.

This isn't to say that Niimura is a bad artist. His page and panel layouts work, his panel to panel storytelling is (generally) easy to follow and effective, his use of grey tones is impressive. It's just that I absolutely hate his style of art. In the afterward notes Joe Kelly says that even though Niimura's style is "loose", it shouldn't be judged as such because everything on the page is where its intended to be and a lot of work was put into the pages. That may well be (Niimura mentions creating thousands of thumbnails and sketches trying to get the pages and characters to look right), but it doesn't mean that I have to like it.

It's not as though I'm even opposed to "loose" styles of art in comics, as I can think of a few artists who work in such styles that I enjoy, but there's just something in this book that does not work for me. I wonder if part of it is the grey tones that are used. There's a small version of a page in the back before the grey tones are added, and I think I like it better (but it's so hard to tell). I think the book would have worked better with, if not full colour than at least partial colours (though the partial colours on the covers don't do much for me either...), but again, that's just a personal preference.

Okay, so what is this comic actually about? What's the story? Barbara is a girl in fifth grade who spends a lot, and I mean a lot, of time living in a fantasy world. She tells people she kills giants, she talks about casting magic spells, she claims to be carrying around a giant hammer as a weapon, and she sees fairies and other magical creatures around. At first its not totally clear how much of this is real, how much she's imagining, and how much she thinks is real, but isn't.

Barbara also plays D&D, doesn't have many friends, is being bullied at school (but keeps fighting back), and keeps ending up talking to the school psychologist. Already this is well on its way to being a perfect YALSA book! There's also something weird going on with her home life. She lives with her brother and older sister (who seems to spend a lot of time looking after them), but where are the parents? The reveal doesn't come until the later part of the book, so I'm not going to spoil it, but it really makes the rest of the book a lot more effective as a story.

It's kind of weird to think about things like that. Sometimes the end of a story can ruin (or redeem!) the entire thing, which I think is really interesting. Does a bad ending automatically make the rest of a story worse? People seem to think so, but there are authors who are fairly well known for being terrible at endings (an example message board posting is called "Does Neal Stephenson know how to write endings yet?"), and yet people still manage to read and enjoy their work. At what point on the "badness" scale does an ending ruin a thing? Can a "good" ending redeem an otherwise dull or uninteresting story? I have no idea.

For I Kill Giants the story (or the art) didn't really appeal to me that much at the beginning, and if I'd been reading this in single issues I really doubt I would have picked up the later ones. However, knowing that people think that it's good (and it being on this YALSA list) means that I persevered and read the whole thing, and it works quite well. Kelly has crafted a story that touches on the difficulties of being a kid and having limited control over your own life. There are so many things that you cannot change (or even explain!), but you have to learn to deal with them somehow.

Its kind of too bad that this book is published by Image, because it doesn't seem to fit in that well with the other types of things that they publish and I feel that people who would enjoy this story might not check it out because of who the publisher is. But for those who do persevere, and are looking for a story about the difficulties of growing up instead of superheros punching each other, than I Kill Giants could be a rewarding experience.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Shrewsbury Library

At Christmas time I visited my parents in the UK. While there I decided to check out their local library.

It was in a pretty cool old building, and had this rad statue of Charles Darwin outside. Unfortunately, it was closed on the day I went to visit.

They did have this neat sundial on the side of the building though.

Friday, June 19, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2012: Thor: The Mighty Avenger

Thor: The Mighty Avenger (Volumes 1-2) 
Written by Roger Langridge. Illustrated by Chris Samnee
Published by Marvel (Volume 1, 2010; Volume 2, 2011)

So first, a confession. I didn't actually reading the two volumes that were placed on the YALSA list from this year. Instead I read Thor: The Mighty Avenger: The Complete Collection published in 2013. It has all 8 issues of Thor: The Mighty Avenger (plus the Free Comic Book Day story), but doesn't include the old Journey into Mystery issues (#83-86) that are included in the original collections. I'm pretty sure their inclusion didn't affect these books making it onto this list, but feel free to say otherwise.

Despite all the positive things I'd heard about this book, I went in with low expectations (though why I felt that way I couldn't really tell you). Maybe I'd just read too many YALSA top ten books that I didn't really care for (it looks like I've disliked, the last five I reviewed for this site). However, I was pleasantly surprised. This book is really cute and fun! It is, to my surprise, much more romantic than I would have thought a Thor comic would be. Jane Foster (that's her on the cover up above) works in a museum, and ends up helping Thor when she thinks he's a hobo (with a heart of gold). Soon he's sleeping on her couch and there's an amount of crushes and flirting and stuff that is sweet without it making me completely uninterested.

That's not to say it's not a superhero comic. While it's not set in any version of the Marvel Universe that exists anywhere else (that I know of) characters like Iron Man, Namor, and Captain Britain show up, and Thor fights robots and super villains and giant sea monsters. So it's pretty typical in that regard, but I also found it more enjoyable than a lot of the superhero comics I read.

Chris Samnee is an artist a lot of people really like (he won an Eisner award for his work on this series), but the limited stuff by him that I've read hasn't really clicked for me. In this book I can definitely see why people enjoy his work, as a lot of the art is great! But then the next panel will just be unappealing to me for some reason I can't put my finger on (the inking style? The width of the lines?). I wonder if it might be something to do with the way the line work interacts with the colours. The colours (by Matthew Wilson) are generally really good, though as with pretty much all modern books the colours are far more than just flat colours, but are used to give depth, hightlight physical features, and more. I wish I could see some of the original black and white line work and compare the two to see where my problem comes from. Regardless of my feelings, you do at least get to see Thor wearing an apron after cooking a meal.

The most frustrating thing about this series is the fact that it doesn't actually end. Apparently it was intended to be a 12 issues series, but it was cancelled after issue eight, leaving readers to wonder who the mysterious Mr. K was, why Thor got banished to Earth, and other questions. The only thing we do know (based on the sketches in the back) is that Hulk was going to show up. The series was successful enough in collected form that it got reprinted, so it's too bad Marvel didn't put out a four issue miniseries to wrap things up.

Monday, June 1, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2011: The Zabime Sisters

The Zabime Sisters
Written and illustrated by Aristophane
Published by First Second (2010)

If I were to pick three things that help make a book more likely to be selected as one of the YALSA top ten graphic novels for teens they would be:
  1. Is about teenagers
  2. Features females in prominent roles
  3. Features minority characters in prominent roles
(A fourth might be "isn't a superhero comic".)

This might make me seem a little jaded about reading these comics, but one of the reasons I started reviewing all of these books was to find out why they ended up on these lists. I think the importance of the YALSA lists are not that they are a "best comics" list, but that the are a "for teens" list. They usually include characters in that age group, and frequently feature characters from groups generally under represented in fiction. This helps provides teenagers both with characters they can more strongly identify with and helps expose them to lifestyles and viewpoints they might not be familiar with.

From the cover of The Zabime Sisters you can see that it fulfills all the "rules" I mentioned above (including the fourth one!), and seems like an obvious candidate for inclusion on a YALSA list. However, I found it incredibly boring.

This is not to say it's bad, just that the subject matter didn't appeal to me at all. The story takes place over a couple of hours in the morning on the first day of summer vacation (which is another recurring theme in these stories...) on the island of Guadalupe (a small island in the Caribbean that is part of France). Now, just to clarify, the reason this didn't appeal to me is not because it was set in the morning, a place I rarely tread by choice, but rather because I thought it was really dull. So dull that it took me a couple of days to read this (quite short) book, and so boring I avoided even writing this review until it was either do this or do homework.

So yeah, a bunch of kids walk around and talk about stuff. Some of them have a picnic thing (and then get drunk off panel), some of them steal mangoes, and a couple of them get into a fight. To me "nothing" happens, and I think that's bad. But other people clearly feel that a book that manages to create a sense of place can be a success, and I assume that is one of the reasons that people enjoyed this story.

Artwise I think the style that Aristophane uses is different from what many people may expect from comics as it's all strong, thick, black lines, with no shading or colouring. Reading some other reviews online indicates that some people didn't like it. I had no problems with the art, and looking at some of it again I feel that Aristophane seems to be capturing the feel of both the characters and the setting welll. The lettering, on the other hand, really, really bugged me.

It's rare that lettering is really discussed in comics. It's kind of the invisible art, only noticeable when someone think's it's bad. And dang, I think it looked really terrible in this comic. Somehow, despite it being hand lettered, it appears to capture every element of terrible computer lettering that I dislike: weird placing of text within speech balloons and caption boxes, text that changes sizes just so that it can fit inside those boxes, the letter i is dotted even though every letter is a capital. It just seemed like a perfect storm of ugly. I assume some of this happened because this book was originally published in French, and so the letterer is stuck with the original spaces and has to make the text fit inside them, but dang, I think they did a really awful job of it.

Next up: Superhero comics. I'm sure I'll like those more.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2015: In Real Life

In Real Life
Writing and illustration by Jen Wang. Original story written by Cory Doctorow.
Published by First Second (2014).

This is only Jen Wang's second graphic novel, but based upon the quality of her illustrations, I really hope it's not her last. Her characters are deeply expressive, and Wang is capable of showing how they're feeling through their facial expressions and their body language. Even without dialogue you're able to know exactly how the various characters feel just by looking at how they're acting in the art. She's also able to show action in clear and exciting ways, both through what the characters are actually doing, the panel-to-panel storytelling, and the general layout of the page. Wang breaks panel borders (at times doing away with them entirely) and uses white space incredibly effectively to help create an atmosphere that captures the feelings of the characters and the world(s) in which they live.

But the thing that truly stands out is the colouring. In Real Life alternates between the real world, and the world of an online MMORPG called Coarsegold. Wang has chosen to colour each of these sections with distinctive colour palettes. The real world sections feature a more sedate style of colouring, with lots of browns and oranges. The online sections feature considerably more colours: pinks, greens, blues, purples, reds. The comparison between the drab "real world" and the more exciting and beautiful game world really help to show that to Anda, the main character, the game is considerably more exciting than real life. It's kind of interesting that seemingly the only time that blue, one of the "game colours", is used in the real world, it's used on the shoes of the person that introduces Anda to Coarsegold in the first place.

However, while I really enjoyed the art, the story pretty much left me cold. It's view of gold farming, labour abuses, online bullying, and other aspects of MMORPG culture are fine, it's just the way in which they're communicated to the audience that I had a problem with. I guess I should say I'm not really a fan of Cory Doctorow's fiction. I like that he's a major proponent of the Creative Commons and digital rights, and that he regularly talks about other important aspects of the digital culture and economy. He's also pretty great at telling people about other things (politics, culture, etc.) through BoingBoing, which I used to read pretty regularly (and still look at occasionally). But I think the only thing he's written that I've read all the way through (apart from blog posts) is Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (his first book), which was fine I guess (though I'm still puzzled as to why anyone would care about Disney World that much). I've tried reading at least one of his other books, but there's something about his his style of writing that I find unappealing. That continues with In Real Life, which he didn't even write! (Instead Jen Wang adapted a short story that Doctorow wrote over a decade ago.)

I can see why you would choose this book for a YALSA list: it has teenage characters doing things that they care about (playing video games!), it has females doing computer stuff, it exposes people to other people from other cultures, it teaches them about aspects of games, online society, and economics that they don't otherwise know, and the characters have realistic body types. But at the same time, it seems incredibly simplistic, kind of promotes slacktivism at its worse, and the end is a little too "happily ever after" for the types of stuff (Chinese people working 16 hours a day so rich people can buy things in video games) the story talks about. As a 13 year old I probably would have found this book to be really cool, and taught me a lot about things I didn't realize were happening online. As a 31 year old...well, it has really nice art.

If you want to take a look at the comic, here's a preview and here's an original story set after the events of the book (I think). It's probably kind of gibberish if you're not familiar with MMORPGs, and (at least part of) the moral seems to be "if your bicycle is stolen it's okay to buy a stolen bicycle", but the art's nice at least.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2010: Children of the Sea Volume 1

Children of the Sea Volume 1
Written and illustrated by Daisuke Igarashi.
Published by Viz (2009)

Ruka is a girl who is slightly too violent at hand ball. Not violent enough to be kicked out of school or get in any serious trouble, but violent enough that she's not allowed to play with the school team all summer. It's the first day of summer vacation, but fior Ruka it feels as though it's already over.

Ruka's parents both used to work for the Tokyo aquarium, but they've split up and now only her dad works there. Ruka lives with her mom, who drinks a lot of...alcohol? (It shows her drinking cans of something, but it's not translated or explained, so I can only guess that she's drinking beer. I mean, it's probably beer, I'm not sure why they'd show piles of cans in the garbage otherwise. The translator's notes in the back of book "helpfully" point out that people recycle cans in Japan.) Ruka doesn't seem to have the best relationship with either of her parents, or any of her classmates at school, and she's looking at a pretty lonely summer until she encounters Umi and Sora.

Umi and Sora are kids who can swim really well and spend most of their time in the water. They were apparently raised by dugongs (those weird sea cow things) for the first few years of their life, and are "prone to dryness" (e.g. they need to be soaked in water a lot). It's a mystery where they came from, or how they ended up being raised by sea mammals, but they've turned into normal(ish) kids. Umi and Sora feel like they have some sort of connection to Ruka, though as they're don't know their origins, they can't really explain what it is.

So that's the main plot of the comic right? Finding out what the deal with these kids is? That's what I thought until I read the description on the book flap. It says that this comic is about "the mystery of the worldwide disappearance of the ocean's fish", which isn't something that gets introduced in the (300 page) first volume. Because of that I'm left to wonder what this book is even about. Is that description accurate, and the mystery will be brought up in later volumes? Or is it wrong and the plot is "who are these weird kids who were raised by dugongs?". I'm not sure if I'm interested enough to find out, but I think that this sort of book could definitely appeal to teenagers (which is what the YALSA books are for). It's about outsider kids, loneliness, broken relationships, and mysteries. What's not to love?

Daisuke Igarashi's art kind of reminds me of a cross between Moyocco Anno and Taiyo Matsumoto, and while that at first sounded kind of strange to me, all three artists are listed on the Wikipedia article for La nouvelle manga (probably due to their inclusion in Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators) so they have at least one thing in common. (Oh wait, here's an interview where Igarashi says to Matsumoto "I actually read your work just to steal [your ideas]".) The storytelling is generally clear, and there are some pretty cool drawings of aquatic animals.

I don't read that much manga anymore. That's kind of relative I guess, I've read thirty something volumes of manga so far this year, but to be honest that pales in comparison to the other comics I've read (somehow I read 56 graphic novels in April) _and_ is the result of me trying to read more manga. But I used to read a lot _more_ manga than I do now. Either way, I am at least familiar with manga as a medium. Somehow, despite that, I still frequently seem to forget that the pacing in manga can be completely different from western comics. Case in point, Children of the Sea takes 70 pages before it introduces Umi (and Sora takes even longer).

It's kind of funny that the last thing I reviewed was Rust Volume 2, which was another comic that I described as slow, but unlike that one things do actually happen in Children of the Sea. Characters are introduced, events occur. There's no 60 page robot fight scene, but there's also no people discussing farms. So really, on that level alone I have to call it amazing.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2014: Rust Volume 2

Rust Vol. 2: Secrets of the Cell
Written and illustrated by Royden Lepp.
Published by Archaia (2012).

It's strange for just the second volume of a series to make it onto the YALSA top ten GNs list. In fact, the only two other examples of non-first volumes making it onto the list are Bad Machinery Vol. 3, from this year's list, and Runaways Vols. 4-6 in 2007 (and if volume 4 of Runaways was released today it would probably have been called Volume 1, as it collected issues 1-6 of volume 2 of Runaways. Yes, comics numbering is stupidly confusing).

Rust is about two things, one is a thing I love, and one is a thing I really don't care about at all. The thing that I love is robots! Yeah! Robots! Apparently there was some big war in the past and the armies used various types of robots (big robots, little robots, lots of robots) to fight each other. They also used humans, and a bunch of them (including parents of characters in this book) died. Since then things have gone back to normal (or somewhat normal), though there are still robots around and you can reprogram them to work on your farm.

And that is the thing I don't really care about: farms. There is a lot of farming and talking about farms in this comic. However, even when it's a robot fixing trucks or doing stuff with hay I find it boring and uninteresting. Unfortunately (for me) there's quite a lot of that stuff. And by "quite a lot", I mean like seventy pages. Lepp is from the prairies somewhere so he probably has nostalgia for that sort of thing, but it's not something that appeals to me on any level.

However, there is a pretty awesome robot fight that takes up a third of the book. And while I'm not opposed to sixty page robot fights (in fact, they sound great), it seems like it might be more useful to move the plot forward a bit more.

Artwise it's kind of a mixed bag. First if you take a look inside you'll notice that everything is coloured in sepia tones, various shades of yellow and brown. While I thought this worked really well for flashback scenes it seemed a little weird for the rest of the comic unless it's trying to indicate that the area the story is set in is suffering from some sort of drought. Though, considering how much the characters talk about the farm, I'm pretty sure they'd mention that.

As for the actual drawings, the backgrounds are fine, the robots are pretty cool, and Lepp is even good at drawing children (something a lot of artists are bad at). Instead he's bad at drawing adults. The two main adult characters look incredibly weird to me in a "why is your head shaped that way" sort of way. (For the record, they both have weirdly shaped heads, but they are shaped weird in different ways.) To be honest, I don't really think these characters even add that much to the story, and you could probably drop them out entirely, or at least reduce the number of pages they show up on.

It seems strange for me to describe a comic that has robot fights, secret government agencies, and war scenes as boring, but it kind of is. This comic is sloowwww. There are quite a few pages of pictures of wheat or people just standing there or similar things. I totally understand that this is a choice that Lepp has made, but it becomes really hard to recommend a $25 graphic novel when you can read it less than half an hour and not much happens plot wise. I'm used to this sort of pacing from some manga, but they're frequently pumping out five or so books this size a year at much cheaper prices.

A third (and final?) volume of Rust came out last year, but I don't think I'll bother reading it. While I do find some of the underlying concepts in Rust interesting, they way they're told just doesn't appeal to me very much. I think other creators could have taken the same story and told it more effectively in just one volume (or even less!). Still, I can sort of see why this is on a YALSA list, as it shows people that live in a rural area and people who have lost parents (to a war), which are concepts to which you might want to expose young people.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Birmingham Library

Oops, school takes up too much time. Photos from the new library in Birmingham I visited in December.

Two Fun Manchu books!?

These are all music books.

UK floor names make no fucking sense.

They'd taken this room (the Shakespeare Memorial Library) apart and recreated it on the top floor of their new building.