March: Book Two (Lewis, Aydin, Powell)

John Lewis’ story continues in this, the second installment of what I’m becoming convinced is an important trilogy. It’s certainly one that I will hope will be priced within range for school use. The juxtaposition between Obama’s inauguration and developments in the 60s continues. And things get complicated here. There are divisions about tactics. There are arguments about language. There is more (brutally depicted) violence. There are criticisms of Dr. King. New names emerge – Bayard Rustin, the Kennedy brothers, John Seigenthaler, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael.

The illustrators are aware of the power of their tools. Consider the cover, with the image of a burning bus, Freedom Riders fleeing for their lives. Consider the back, a stained glass picture, with Jesus’ face shattered and missing. (You find out why when you read the story.) The writers are also aware of the power of words, letting much of John Lewis’  controversial speech during the March on Washington run over several pages and then printing it in its original form in the back of the book. Why, I wonder, doesn’t it get more attention? I know it was overshadowed by King’s, but it deserves its own place in history.

An important, teachable, necessary book.

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Saints (Yang)

This tale of the Boxer Rebellion intersects with Part I, Boxers, but takes a slightly different approach. The influence of “foreign devils” is once again here, but this time, we follow a female protagonist who tries to navigate the contentious times. There’s much more about religion here, and the outsiders play a larger role, so there’s more of a need for Yang to provide translations. The art seems more deliberate here, so this part is shorter, it took me just as long. And, I’ll admit, I was a bit confused by the ending. I’ll keep reading what Yang has to offer. I just wish the industry could find a way to make graphic novels cheaper.

Boxers (Yang)

I have argued with many about the need for historical context prior to reading literature. I prefer to find my way into a book first and then seek the historical background knowledge that I need. This graphic novel tested this belief. I know next to nothing about the Boxer’s Rebellion and only a bit about a China. (On top of that, I’m not too experienced with graphic novels.) Still, thanks for Yang’s brilliance (you have to read American Born Chinese), I found my way into this, the first part of his story of late 19th century China’s struggle to deal with increasing numbers of “foreign devils.” I am grateful that Yang offered suggestions for further reading. Because after I finish Saints, I intend to fill in the gaps.

As I said above, I’m not too well-versed with graphic novels and so I don’t always examine the art the way I should. Given that, though the art is evocative, I found few panels that were enhanced by careful inspection of the visuals. Maybe I still need to learn how to look.

Fun Home: A Family Tragiccomic (Bechdel)

Since I am still just dipping my toes into the graphic book genre, I figured that I should get to the classics first. I’d heard of this one for a long time (and the Bechdel test) and finally decided to give it a go. I continue to hope that the publishers of graphic novels can find a way to make them cheaper. This one is denser than most (in my limited experience) because there are lots of different kinds of texts – letters, notes, journal entries, excerpts from books, poems, etc.., so its 232 pages took me a fair amount of time.

The story is brutal – more tragic than comic, in my opinion. Bechdel conveys her coming of age during a confluence of events, both personal and public, in vivid terms. (Don’t read this one around your children!) In fact, her personal upbringing was necessarily public as her home also served as a funeral home.

There is a focus on Bechdel’s relationship with her father, a relationship that is often based on books, including the works of Homer, Joyce, and Proust. Now I’ve read all three authors – Homer more than the others – and still found these sections challenging.

It’s a powerful and vivid story. A keeper, for sure. A classic? Someone who knows more will have to explain its status to me.

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March (Lewis, Aydin, Powell)

This graphic novel, the first in a trilogy about Lewis’ life, is an excellent book. Though the framing devices (Obama’s first inauguration, etc.) come off as somewhat forced, the story itself is compelling. Everything from Lewis’ early passion for both chickens and sermonizing (combined in quite a funny way) to his participation in the sit-ins at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement is rendered in clear prose and is accompanied by appropriately intense imagery. The images of Lewis looking out his bus window as it drove by a white school and his reaction when Martin Luther King tells him he’ll have to get his parents to sign a suit they want to bring in order to integrate Troy State are particularly memorable.

I like that the book does not shy away from potentially difficult moments. The image of Emmett Till suggests more than it shows, but there’s enough present for Lewis et all to make their point. I wondered about this for a while as the explicitness of the image Till’s mother showed the world was part of the reason his case had the impact it did. But this is not that. What’s here is enough.

I also admired how the book took up the differences between the generations involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I imagine it takes some guts to criticize Thurgood Marshall.

I would definitely use it in class, probably grades 6-12.

I look forward to the next two.

Incognegro (Johnson)

From its very first image, Johnson’s graphic novel grabs you. And I would emphasize both of the words – graphic and novel. There are a handful of images that are pretty tough to look at, but Johnson is not tackling an easy topic here – lynching. I think it deserves to be called a novel because there is, in my limited experience with the genre, a tremendous amount of plot.

There are several places where the art (provided by Warren Pleece) and language work together to create powerful art (18-19). And the line, “Just because I play the fool sometimes doesn’t mean I am one” (37, emphasis his) is challenging to unpack. And there’s an exchange between a mother and child (103) that sets you moving in one direction in the first frame and then explodes your hopes in the next.

This is a well-put together piece. The characters are well-drawn. I was impressed by Johnson’s characterization of the sheriff, among others.

Read it. Be ready, but read it (including the author’s note).

Cleveland (Pekar)

I figured that in order to learn more about my soon-to-be hometown, I should start with one of its most notable citizens. I liked Pekar’s solid introduction to the history of the place interweaved with his own story. It’s amazing how much of a voice comes through even with so few words on so few pages. Of course, Joseph Remnant’s images help and I did see American Splendor. I love the way Pekar moves back and forth in time and that he’s not nearly as gloomy as his reputation and appearance suggest. The last three images of the book are beautiful.

There is one wince-worthy moment. When Pekar talks about some of the people he met at the VA who became characters in his stories, Toby, a white man (based on the pictures), is identified as a “Genuine Nerd.” His race is not mentioned. Mr. Boats, obviously a black man (again, based on the picture), is identified as a “lively and intelligent black man.” Why?

A minor moment in what is otherwise about to be the travel guide for my new hometown. First step: Find out whether the huge ‘Free’ stamp on 106 is real!

And read the introduction by Alan Moore and the good-bye by Jimi Izrael that frame the book. Fitting tributes.