Monday, February 23, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2009: Pitch Black

Pitch Black 
Written and illustrated by Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton.
Published by Cinco Puntos Press (2008).

If most people were approached by a large, black, homeless man on the New York subway they'd probably attempt to avoid any sort of conversation and possible even just get off the train entirely. But for whatever reason Youme Landowne didn't. Instead she met Anthony Horton, and spent a lot of time talking to him about art, life, and homelessness.

Vancouver (where I live) is like many cities in that it has a large homeless population. And while the Downtown Eastside might seem pretty terrible, it really can't compare to some of the places around the world. However, even when I see and am aware of homeless people in the city, it can be really easy to ignore them, or forget that they are humans with feelings, emotions, and pasts. (Though to be fair, I can forget about that for pretty much any human, homeless or not.)

Compared to many Horton seems to have had a pretty terrible life in a lot of ways, and the cards were clearly stacked against him from the start. He bounced around foster homes after his parents gave him up, and never learned to read or write or any other real skills.  He spent some time living in shelters, but found them worse than living outside. Eventually he found his way down to the subway tunnels, where he encountered other people, and made various homes for himself over the years.

In Pitch Black he shows Landowne where he lived, talks about his rules for survival ("Remember, anything you need can be found in the garbage"), and tells her about his friends who had helped him survive. In it's attempt to humanize Horton it manages to be sad, terrifying, and touching in equal parts.

The art by Landowne is not something that would work with a lot of stories. It seems to be lacking a lot of the detail and consistency that I associate with "good" comic book art. But somehow the thick, wavy panel borders and lines, the grey smudgy colour, and the art that sometimes feels as though it were cut off by the edge of the page does a good job of capturing what the underground tunnel system is like: grimy, claustrophobic, and dangerous. It doesn't look clean and it doesn't look safe, and thankfully due to this Landowne manages to avoid making living in subway tunnels seem appealing. (I mean, doesn't everyone want to do that?)

At about 60 pages this book is not that long, and the art is not the best by most standards, but as a whole the comic does manage to capture some of what it feels like to be homeless. Reading Pitch Black can help you understand how difficult life can be for some people, but also that no matter who they are people are still people and still have wants, needs, and rights.

After reading this comic I'd hoped that Horton had managed to improve his life to some extent, but  it seems as though up until his death in a fire in 2012 he continued to be homeless. Not exactly the uplifting note you want a story like this to end on, but sadly, real life doesn't work that way.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2009: Cairo

Written by G. Willow Wilson. Illuastrated by M. K. Perker.
Published by DC/Vertigo (2008)

It's kind of interesting to go back and read someone's first published work after they become super famous (well... relatively super famous). Wilson is now (by far) best known for her work on Ms. Marvel (which was on this year's YALSA top ten GN list), but back in 2007 she was writing for Vertigo.

I owned the first volume Air (the series Wilson did at Vertigo after Cairo), and while I even talked to Wilson at a con I don't believe I ever actually read it. I had actually read this book before, which seems kind of strange to be honest. Air lasted 24 issues, which by the records of Vertigo series from the last decade or so is actually pretty good.

As for Cairo, well, it reminds me of an action movie. Not a "shoot them until everyone is dead" movie, but a "lots of disparate characters running around doing different things while other people shoot at them" movie. There are six main characters in the book, who get thrown into random pairs as they circle events about a hookah that has a djinn/jinn/genie inside it. A male drug smuggler who's trying to get the hookah back ends up with a female Israeli soldier who just wants to go back to Israel without getting killed. A young, white American girl on holiday and an Egyptian journalist get kidnapped as hostages and have to escape. And there's the young, male Lebanese-American who was going to be a suicide bomber until his flight got cancelled and he ended up trying to help a jinn.

They run around Egypt trying to find each other, escaping bad guys (wait, an Israeli soldier, a potential suicide bomber, and a drug smuggler count as good guys?), encountering magic stuff and entities, and fighting goons and/or monsters. The difference between this and other stories is that it was made by Muslim creators, and thus their knowledge of and experience with other countries/cultures can create a different world (though considering that Wilson converted to Islam like five years before this book came out you might want to question the accuracy of everything).

As for the art by M. K. Perker (who also drew Wilson's series Air), it didn't really grab me. The layout is fine, the panel to panel story telling works, and there are even a couple of pretty fun fourth-wall breaking bits. However, I think that at the time this comic came out Perker was a lot more used to editorial cartooning (at least that's what I can surmise from his Wikipedia page), and I suspect drawing a full 150 page graphic novel was quite a different experience for him.

Looking through Cairo again I think my major problem is with the faces of the characters. They look kind of awkward? Maybe that's not the right word, but it seems as though their features, while expressive, don't always fit on their faces right, as though they were the wrong size. Now, just to clarify, this isn't always the case, and their are times when the characters are supposed to look kind of weird, however it does happen just enough for it to be noticeable by me. Looking at his work since then, Perker doesn't seem to have this problem anymore (his stuff for The Unwritten looks really nice), so I think it was just inexperience.

Looking at the YALSA lists you have to remember one thing: these are not the "best" books of the year, these are "great graphic novels for teens". I think that means that there's a greater emphasis on teenage characters, but also on non-white characters, LGBTQ characters, and other people who are generally underrepresented in our media as a whole. Librarians are far more likely to think about those sorts of things than the Eisner judges (who, while they generally pick very good books, have also only ever chosen comics about white people or animals to win their "Best Publication for Teens" award). For librarians it's important to help people find books that appeal to them and feature characters like them, but also provide books that represent different viewpoints than library users have experienced before. On that level, I think Cairo probably succeeds, at least in an "action movie" kind of way.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Library Tourism: George Mackie Library

I like to visit different public libraries. It's fun!

However, I also go waaayyy out of my way to visit public libraries because the systems here won't do interlibrary loan for graphic novels. So if I want to read something that's out of print I'm going to be getting on a series of buses.

And so I headed to Delta (where?) to visit the George Mackie library branch of the Fraser Valley Regional Library.

I caught a bus (the wrong bus), waited forever for another bus (because of an ice hockey game delaying buses), caught the skytrain, discovered that the every half hourly bus I needed had left two minutes before I go there, got on a different bus that was heading in the vaguely same direction, and then walked a bunch. Only took an hour and a half to get there.

Then I borrowed 23 graphic novels. Good thing I brought a backpack.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

YALSA top ten 2008: Blue Beetle


Blue Beetle (Volumes 1-2)
Written by Keith Giffen and John Rogers. Illustrated by Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque, and others.
Published by DC Comics (2006-2007)

So ages and ages ago I was originally going to read and review these graphic novels in something more like chronological order, and I read (or attempted) to read books from the first few years of these awards. (This plan didn't last long.) In the case of Blue Beetle my local library system didn't have the first two volumes of Blue Beetle, so I read every other Blue Beetle thing they had at the time. Since lots of copies of books had gone missing, this amounted to two books, a later volume of this series (Vol. 4: End Game), and the Blue Beetle Companion, which tracked the history of the character from the 1930s up to around 2008 and educated me about the Blue Beetle radio show from 1940 (it is terrible).

There's really no reason to mention this, because now I've actually read the first two volumes, but I figured I needed to link to those radio shows _somehow_. Anyway, reading the first volume of Blue Beetle nine years after it came out is somewhat confusing. Now, this is because Blue Beetle is a shared universe superhero title, and like many of them it refers to other superhero comics that were coming out at the time. I didn't realize/remember this (despite the fact that I think I've read this volume before), and really it's not that big of a deal, but there's some amount of story that's happening in the Infinite Crisis event crossover that isn't really explained that well/at all until the second volume.

Okay! So what is Blue Beetle about? It's about a kid who finds a magic (or alien?) scarab beetle thing  that gives him crazy cool armour and he (of course) becomes a superhero. Of course, there are some fun bits that do make it different from Spider-Man or other teenage heroes. First, it's set in El Paso, which actually has way more superpowered people than you would expect, but also doesn't exactly have Superman hanging out. Second, Jaime's parents know he's the Blue Beetle, this leads to some pretty fun interactions between them when they're asking if he has his homework done before he can head out to save the world.

The design for this Blue Beetle is still pretty cool looking, and I think it's kind of impressive how this version of Blue Beetle has actually become the one that is shown in other media. The Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle appeared in Smallville, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice, a number of video games, and even a live action test trailer for a TV show.. That probably makes him one of the more successful non-white superhero characters ever, let alone one that was created less than a decade ago.

While these two volumes do feature six pencillers over twelve issues, the art manages to stay fairly consistent. There's also some pretty nice colouring in there that I wasn't expecting. (There's also some fairly terrible colouring that makes it seem as though Jaime has horrible growths on his face instead of facial hair, but you can't win them all.)

So the art's generally well done, the supporting cast (and their relationships with each other) is pretty good, the mystery about the scarab is decent, Jaime is a likeable character, and the book overall is fun. (This is what people have been saying for about a decade now...) If you gave me more issues I'd read them. Mostly though, I think I'm just glad that Jaime has proven popular enough to still be around, and not be killed off in some crossover or other like so many other characters.

Monday, February 9, 2015

YALSA 2015 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.

About a year ago I was 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 have at least read more than half of this year's list!)

I'll be reviewing them as I read (or reread) them, and this page will eventually contain links to all the books from 2015. Here's the full list of nominations from 2015, and the top ten list. They occasionally have weird formatting or credits.

Afterlife with Archie: Escape from Riverdale by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla.

Bad Machinery V.3: The Case of the Simple Soul by John Allison

47 Ronin by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai.

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang.

Ms. Marvel: V.1. No Normal by G. Willow Wison and Adrian Alphona.

Seconds: a Graphic Novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew.

Through The Woods by Emily Carroll

Trillium by Jeff Lemire. 

Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki by Mamoru Hosoda and Yu.