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...)