Monday, September 30, 2013

Mind MGMT, Volume 1: The Manager

An airplane takes off and when it lands all 120 passengers on board (save one 7-year-old boy) have complete amnesia (good things the pilots remembered how to land the plane). These people cannot remember a single detail about their lives, not marriages, relatives, childhoods. Nothing. Add to the mystery that one of the passengers, one Henry Lyme, cannot be found.

Enter Meru, a frustrated author who cannot come up with a follow-up to her debut true crime novel. She decides she is going to get to the bottom of this "amnesia flight" as her new writing project. In her quest for truth, she finds herself penniless, followed by the CIA, hunted by strange and powerful figures, and confronted with the existence of an agency of spies who have psychic abilities. These agents have such control of world situations that human beings almost seem like pets or even insects to them, which lends a frightening aspect to the proceedings.

Apart from the plot, which has its own amazing array of twists and turns, there is also a guidebook entry embedded in each page. These instructions lend a different angle to plot developments, and over time they become more and more relevant. This attention to detail is simply astounding and helps make this book one weird, wild trip.

This book's creator, Matt Kindt, is prolific of late, producing graphic novels like Red Handed and Super Spy while also writing a good number of titles at DC Comics, including Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Justice League of America, and Suicide Squad. He has been nominated for multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards, and is generally a well regarded creator. His writing is full of real world facts and details that lend a realism to the suspenseful situations he creates. His art is sketchy and atmospheric, typically enhanced with watercolors, as you can see in this sample page from the "Mind MGMT Case Files" that end each chapter:

The sketchy aspect of the art contributes to the plot in excellent manner, setting up misdirections and confusion that only sharpen the mysteries and plot twists further. I found this collection of issues #0-6 of the monthly comic book series to be eerie, gripping, and well plotted. There are so many details in this book, and they all contribute to a grand scheme that is not apparent at first. I cannot wait to see where these characters are going and what other secrets will be revealed in future volumes.

Reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Seth T. Hahne was "incredibly impressed" with Kindt's "seamless, off-handed, perfect world-building." Sean Edgar described how it "reads like a comic that has had an inordinate amount of thought put into it." Leslie at Working for the Mandroid wrote, "This is the most bizarre comic I have ever read, and I could not put it down."I particularly agree with these sentiments, and I felt this book was utterly compelling and engrossing.

This volume of Mind MGMT, like the ongoing comic book series, is published by Dark Horse. There is a preview and more available here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fairy Tale Comics: Classic Tales Told by Extraordinary Cartoonists

This book features an all star team of creators retelling an all star team of fairy tales from across the world. I felt it was a very impressive collection of well drawn and expertly told tales. It is hard to pick one story as my favorite, but if I had to narrow it down to two, I am very partial to Luke Pearson's version of the Japanese tale "The Boy Who Drew Cats"

and Joseph Lambert's retelling of a Br'er Rabbit tale "Rabbit Will Not Help."

Also, Graham Annable's wordless version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" had me laughing out loud.

Nevertheless, there is a wide range of excellent work contained in this book, told in very different styles and covering many kinds of stories, horrific, funny, sad, and adventurous. Among the other strong works in these pages are:

Gilbert Hernandez's bright retelling of "Hansel and Gretel"
His brother Jaime Hernandez giving us a spacy, wonderful "Snow White"
Comics veteran Ramona Fradon drawing the surreal and magical "The Prince and the Tortoise"

David Mazzucchelli's take on the creepy "Give Me the Shudders"
Craig Thompson sharing "Azzolino's Story Without End"
Raina Telgemeier's fun and feisty "Rapunzel"
Charise Mericle Harper's version of a strange English tale " The Small-Tooth Dog"
Gigi D.G.'s expressive version of "Little Red Riding Hood"
Brett Helquist's textured and impressionistic version of "Rumpelstiltskin"
And these are only some of the stories contained in this anthology! I did not think any one of them was a clunker, and what is more, there are endnotes that I found helpful when I ran into a story I did not know and wanted to learn more about. I also like the range of creators, and I am glad to have seen some relatively new folks mixed in with established ones I was very familiar with.

Editor Chris Duffy gathered all of these artists and stories, and he also wrote the adaptation to "The Prince and the Tortoise." A veteran in the field, he edited Nickolodeon Comics for 13 years, as well as the Bizarro Comics anthology for DC Comics and Spongebob Squarepants comics for Bongo Comics. For more about this book and how Duffy chose the stories and artists he did, check out this interview at Good Comics for Kids.

All of the reviews I have read thus far have been very positive. Publishers Weekly wrote, "Duffy has assembled a dazzling lineup of comics versions of more than a dozen fairy tales in this hilarious follow-up to Nursery Rhyme Comics." The librarians at Stacked were more measured but still called it "a great collection for young readers who may come to many of these stories with new eyes, never having read them anywhere else before." Michael May summed up the book nicely as "a fascinating look at modern culture through the lens of classic stories, but that’s what grown-ups are going to get out of it. For children, it’s simply an exciting, funny, beautifully drawn collection of unique versions of their favorite tales."

A preview and more are available here from the book's publisher First Second.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song

The Carter Family today are probably best known for their association with Johnny Cash via his marriage to June Carter Cash, but they were a music group that recorded songs between 1927 and 1956, preserving and propagating American folk music traditions and influencing many musicians beyond their time. They were among the first nationally popular recording and radio artists, certainly the first big country music stars, and their sound had a huge impact on folk, bluegrass, country, and rock and roll music. Their vocal styling and guitar work are foundational. Their songs like "Keep on the Sunny Side," "Wildwood Flower," and "Can the Circle Be Unbroken" have been immortalized as standards, covered by countless others, and become part of the great American songbook.

Don't Forget This Song chronicles the career of the Carter Family, from scenes of Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter courting and marrying the beautifully singing Sara Dougherty, them scraping together a living in rural Poor Valley, Virgina, and then forming a musical group with Sara's sister Maybelle in the hope of making a few extra dollars.

Slowly, royalties from recordings and song writing credits make life somewhat easier for the families, and they make music their primary vocation. They rise to success and fame, but there also is a toll. Eventually, a grueling travel schedule, long periods away from home, a multitude of performances, different business concerns, and the demands of family life combine to create dissent, discontent, and divorce.

There is much pain, sorrow, and longing in this book, but it also is mingled with beauty in terms of creativity and discovery. The story is told via short, well paced chapters that are packed full of import, atmosphere, and emotion. The art is spare but highly expressive. I found myself drawn into the characters' plights via the simple color palette, clever use of symbolic conventions, and facial expressions. Also, there is a CD of Carter Family songs included with the book so readers can further immerse themselves in the sounds of the characters and their lives.

Creators Frank M. Young and David Lasky partially funded this book via a Kickstarter campaign. Young is a writer and editor who worked on The Comics Journal. Lasky is an alternative comics artist who has been sharing his work in various anthologies since the early 1990s. He shares his comics on this blog and shares more about his career on this other blog. The duo also collaborated on another graphic novel about a family traveling the Oregon Trail. They speak about their work on The Carter Family in this interview.

This book won an Eisner Award and was nominated for a Harvey Award for best graphic novel. It has received many positive reviews. Richard Gehr wrote that Young and Lasky "will charm the pants off you with a book full of characters who are all too human." Jason Sacks concluded, "This is an interesting book that works on several levels. As a simple biography... As a piece of comics art... And as a depiction of the older, weirder America." Michael Taube called it "a superb graphic novel."

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song is published by Abrams ComicArts. Many reviews, previews, and other tidbits are available at the book's official site.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays

Mark Twain famously said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." This collection of "picto-essays" certainly reflects the sentiment expressed in the second part of the quotation, with its wide range of stories and accounts that accompany similar variety in reality. Syncopated is an eclectic mix of non-fiction works, including personal essays, historical accounts, and biographical sketches that have much to offer a curious reader.

The tales include:

A story about baling hay, which is much more informative and interesting that I expected.

A disturbing series of  illustrations based on Guantanamo Bay detention camp interrogation transcripts.

A biography of August Dvorak, creator of a simplified keyboard that never caught on popularly.

A history of postcards.

A sobering account of the 1921 Tulsa race riots.

An account of a family going to China to adopt a child.

A biography of the influential psychologist Erik Erikson.

As can be seen from the images, the artists all work in black and white and use diverse styles to get their points across. Although I was not extremely interested in all of the stories, they are all well told and composed. Many of them are highly informative and also affecting. The only real clunkers (and still, they are beautifully rendered) for me in the book were two different galleries of images, one of Washington Square Park and the other of subway performers. In the end, it is not a book I would read voraciously, but over time it has many insights and moments to share.

The book's editor Brendan Burford is comics editor of King Features, one of the largest comics syndicates in the US and home to many highly recognizable strips. He sees himself as a messenger about the potential and range of comics, and he gathers nonfiction accounts such as those here for a series of Syncopated collections as well as drawing his own mini comics. He speaks more about his work on this book and his career in general in this interview with Tom Spurgeon.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote that "there aren’t any bad pieces in the whole book, which make this a rather exceptional anthology." Laurel Maury praised it as "another step in the maturation of the art form." Andy Shaw called it "well worth a look."

Syncopated is published by Villard, an imprint of Random House, and they offer a preview here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Boxers & Saints

Author Gene Yang is an award-winning, celebrated graphic novel known for combining elements of biography, reality, legend, and fiction in works such as American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile, Prime Baby, and Level Up. Ambitiously, he has undertaken a similar path in not one but two graphic novels released concurrently. Boxers and Saints focus on the Boxer Rebellion, a period from 1987 to 1900 where Chinese peasants banded together to expel foreigners who they perceived as weakening Chinese culture. These books focus on two sides of the conflict, sharing some common characters whose stories overlap in mundane, consequential, and heartbreaking ways.

Boxers is the more colorful of the two books. It follows the story of Bao, a young man whose village and family start having run-ins with foreigners and assorted roving hooligans. He ends up a part of a band called the Big Sword Society. These men have learned a way to channel ancient spirits through training and ritual, and when they are possessed of these spirits they are formidable and almost unbeatable in battle. Bao is possessed and haunted by Ch'in Shih-huang, the first emperor of the Ch'in Dynasty. He becomes a leader and debates this spirit often in his mind, conflicted by traditions, justice, and the realities of conflict that seem unfair and unjust. In the end, Bao makes some decisions that could be seen as destructive and reckless though they are tactically advantageous. Highlighted here is the transformative power of warfare, for both good and ill, and how there are no easy answers (or true heroes) in many of these situations.

A page from Boxers

The protagonist of Saints is a young girl who does not even have a proper name. Four-Girl has no status and no standing but she finds validation, friendship, and a name (Vibiana) through Christianity. These Christians were a small and endangered group in China at the time, because their faith was an emblem of the foreigners who were seen by the "Righteous and Harmonious Fists" (the Boxers) as enemies of the state. Like Bao, Vibiana is also visited continually by a spirit, in her case St. Joan of Arc. She struggles with her faith in these troubled times, and she finds herself in the group that Bao's band is hunting and fighting, which adds poignancy and emotion from a much different angle than in Boxers.

A page from Saints

What I appreciated most about these books, apart from the taut plotting and excellent illustrations, was how though provoking they are. Much ambivalence accompanies this (or any) conflict, and there are no easy answers here and no pure right side. Reviews I have read point to many of the books' positive features. Crystal called both "a beautifully illustrated and well told tale that you won’t want to miss." Ay-Leen the Peacemaker commented about both books' "emotional impact" and concluded that they combine for "an ambitious work that makes for compelling reading." Elizabeth Burns from the School Library Journal added them both to her Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Yang speaks about both of these books in this video interview as well as in this print one with GeekDad.

Boxers and Saints are both published by First Second. If you click on the titles in that last sentence you will find previews and much more for each book.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copies!

ADDENDUM 9/16/2013: Boxers and Saints made the long list for this year's National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category:

ADDENDUM 9/20/2013: There is another good interview with Yang at Good Comics for Kids:

ADDENDUM 11/17/2013: An excellent interview with Yang at The Comics Reporter: 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Getting Married and Other Mistakes

Jo is a photographer who excels at shooting weddings, but when her own marriage ends in divorce she falls into a depression and starts looking at her life choices. First, she examines her relationship with her mother and how much she was prepared to attract and marry the right kind of man.

Next, she tries some casual sex to see if that will snap her out of her funk.

Finally, she ends up seeing a few different therapists in order to get a clearer picture of her life and choices.

Along the way, she comes to various realizations about herself, her upbringing, and why she feels the ways that she does. Also, she does not find any snap answers or solutions, and she continues to make some questionable choices, such as dating a much older man. Her friends weigh in on her misadventures, which adds another facet to the proceedings as well as a good dose of humor.

Getting Married and Other Mistakes could be very cynical and cold, but instead it reads in a positive and charming manner. Jo is a strong character, and gaining insight to her thoughts is not just a cliched exercise in New Age self-realization. The various other characters are not always so well defined, but they are memorable and realistic for the most part, excepting perhaps her mother, who is utterly non-reflective and conniving, a complete nightmare.

The art, as can be seen in the excerpted panels, is crisp and very clean, with vibrant colors enlivening the pages. I like the style, which is a mix of pop art and sequential art. The book is perhaps a bit text heavy at times, but I feel that the interplay with the words and the illustrations is clever and used to good effect.

The book's creator, Barbara Slate, is a long-time comics maker, with three decades of credits ranging from Angel Love at DC to Yuppies from Hell and Barbie comics at Marvel as well as a slew of Betty and Veronica comics from Archie. She also wrote an instructional art book called You Can Do a Graphic Novel, which she talks more about in this podcast interview and this interview article.

Most reviews I have read about this book have been positive, though there are some that find major issues with it. Jeannine at Closing Chapters called it "both witty and poignant." Irene S. Roth called it a "book every woman will relate to." The reviewer at Publishers Weekly offered a less enthusiastic response, "Slate’s attempt to present an insightful message of empowerment through a light and ostensibly funny narrative is flattened by art that is, even for the undemanding genre of chick lit comics, overly simplified."
Getting Married and Other Mistakes is published by Other Press. They offer a preview and more here.