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.

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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.

Blankets (Thompson)

I am not a huge fan of graphic novels / comic books. (Does that debate really matter? Is anyone really only willing to read them if they are called ‘graphic novels’?) It took me a long while to investigate them and begin to take them more seriously. Maus helped turn the tide. But teaching Persepolis helped me appreciate the genre more. It made me look more carefully at the art and how it supports the text.

Blankets is my first non-classic graphic novel (though I bought at a comic book store). It’s intense. The religious and abusive elements (the latter is underplayed, but ominous) create a tremendous amount of tension. Thompson is an amazing artist. His images are alternatively hallucinatory and realistic. He conveys emotion – notably in Raina’s father – in a remarkably minimalist way. Some of the language – perhaps a deliberate reflection of the religious influence (is Craig somewhat indoctrinated?) – can come across as a bit stilted. I have mixed feelings about the ending – tacked on hope or honest?

I do have a bone to pick with the whole graphic novel / comic book industry. They have to find a way to make these things cheaper. $32 for what maybe took me an hour to read? It’s hard to justify that investment.