Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

Well, we’ve reached the end of the line. The end of the rope, more like it. The bell does indeed toll for me, and I figure there isn’t much of a better way to go than to bring it full circle, and evaluate the (sizable) list of graphic novels I’ve chewed through this semester and semesters prior. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on graphic novels by any means, more of an enthusiast. Thanks to Scott McCloud, I know how to analyze them a bit better, and I know a bit more about the components that make them up. Ms. Fish has expressed an interest in writing for graphic novels – I wonder how one breaks into that. Maybe that’ll be my next pursuit of knowledge.

Regardless, I figured after hours of reading, I would go back through the list with my newfound knowledge. Here are my (personal) favorite top 5 graphic novels of all time.

#5: Watchmen by Alan Moore

Moore

I struggled with whether or not to throw Watchmen on this list. It’s by far the longest and one of the most difficult graphic novels I’ve read, regardless of having capes in it. It’s some seriously dark, heavy stuff. Watchmen tackles what happens when superhero teams fall out, the United States government bans vigilantism, and is essentially a “whodunnit?” murder mystery between superheroes. Couple that with the constantly recurring theme of “who watches the Watchmen?,” in other words, who polices superheroes, and you’ve got quite a lot going on in this one.

Part of the reason I debated throwing it on the list was sheer length: this one is long from beginning to end. This is by no means a 20 minute breeze. It’s tough to press through. The cast of characters is diverse and infinitely messed up, each “super”hero is a human at the core with problems and dark personal places they are trying to run from. Another reason I considered axing this one from the list is simply because the author, Alan Moore, has said some pretty outlandish and foolish things in recent years about the recent surge of comic books and their popularity. Though, I felt it would be unfair to punish the work for the creator’s flaws, so it made it. This is not for the feint of heart.

#4: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

Jen Wang 2

To be honest, I didn’t expect In Real Life to make the list. It had a beautiful and charming art style, but was a relatively quick read. However, the more I chewed on it, the more I grew to appreciate it. In Real Life is about a lot of things: teenage nerdiness, video games, other cultures, economics, social plight, and friendship. There isn’t an overly sexy or overly homely protagonist: she’s a normal, everyday girl who happens to be into some dorky stuff.

In Real Life landed on my list because it portrays real gaming by real people, and doesn’t propagate the “gamer girl” stereotype. Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang have done their fair share of gaming, or at the very least, research on it. There aren’t any complete jumps in logic to make the “video game” segments of the novel work. TV shows and movies are infamous for absolutely butchering any attempts to include video games in a storyline. They’re often unrealistic in terms of actual games, and I can’t stand when some actor sits with a 360 controller and pounds on the buttons like they’re playing a game.

Being a gamer with an MMO gaming girlfriend, I appreciated these details. Short as it may be, In Real Life makes my list.

#3: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

Spiegelman

If there is a literary canon for graphic novels, Spiegelman’s Maus is definitely at the top of the list. The book is both about Art’s as well as his father’s tale: his father retells how he became part of and survived the holocaust, and Art is depicted grappling with the seriousness of the subject and frequently butting heads with his father. Their relationship is somewhat strained, but still loving.

Maus’s art style is simplistic, but highly effective. Different ethnicities are depicted as different animals: Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, the Polish are pigs, etc. etc. The animal characters allow Spiegelman to play with symbolism he wouldn’t have access to otherwise: there are cats wearing mouse masks and things of that nature all over the novel. Obviously, the subject matter is an extremely heavy one, couple that with the tale being true, and you have a must-read for anyone looking to break into graphic novels. Think it’s all superheroes and capes? Think again.

#2: This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

Tamaki

This One Summer is a novel I was introduced to during this semester, and of the new ones I’ve read, it is most definitely my favorite. It’s a coming-of-age tale between two teenage girls at their own little summer retreat, but it’s so much more than the quintessential “both characters learn a lesson and have a happy ending.” It deals with some pretty heavy themes: miscarriage, teen pregnancy, friendship, maturity, societal pressure, and awkward first love. It has its feel good moments, but ultimately, it’s about relationships between people as you age and mature. Friends, parents, etc. People grow apart. They come together, Adolescents discover things about themselves that they aren’t sure how to feel about.

The thing that really sold This One Summer for me besides the unique story, was the phenomenal artwork. This very well might be my favorite artwork in a graphic novel, bar none. The whole thing feels very dreamy, memory-esque, but never bleak or dark. The art style is highly detailed, yet flows effortlessly into simplicity when the moments call for it. The dark color used is a shade of blue, rather than black, avoiding the noir-like flashback feeling. I understand it also made Dr. Elisabeth Ellington’s list of the top books in 2014. I see why.

#1: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Millar, Klaus Johnson, and Lynn Varley

Johnson

This isn’t your mom and dad’s Batman with Adam West in it. No, no, no. This is a much darker, and a much different take than one we’ve seen in television or movies before. The Dark Knight Returns follows Bruce Wayne 8 years after having given up being Batman. Gotham is more run-down than ever, dominated by gangs and half-witted politicians, with news anchors of FOX News caliber constantly spewing nonsense about whether it’s Batman’s fault crime exists in the first place. When Bruce reaches a breaking point, he’s back in the game, but there’s a problem: he’s old.

He’s old, and his body only has so much left to give to this kind of work. Robin is long gone, and Batman must work his way back into favor with the people. Batman is more brutal than ever in this one, fighting to survive rather than just to dish out justice. He’s fighting a passive public, incompetent police force / politicians, and most of all: his own doubts. Things get even more jumbled up when a teenage girl in a Robin costume saves him from certain death. Batman here isn’t just about beating the bad guys: it’s a social commentary from the 80’s. The president is a grinning fool who sees only his own agenda to forward, the media is filled with fluff and pointless debates, the public either blame Batman for everything or depend completely on him for protection, there is no winner in this one. This is all before “gritty superhero reboots” were all the rage. This one pushed the Bat’s envelope to somewhere it had never been before.

In case you’re wondering, a few familiar faces do show up. In particular, one with a ridiculous grin, and another with a red cape flowing from the back…

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Well folks, that does it for me. As I said, this is my list of personal favorites. Pick and choose as you see fit. I would recommend any of these as a read in a half second. I think my list really reflects the diversity that can be found in graphic novels: we’re not living in a world of solely capes and superheroes. There are graphic novels on nearly every subject under the sun. You’ve just gotta look for them. We may have reached the end of the road, but the journey isn’t over for me.

Catch you all on the flip side.

Amata

(Disclaimer: all images in this post are the property of / creation of Bill Watterson. All hail.) 

If I had to think back to the origin of my fascination with comic books, it didn’t come from superheroes. It didn’t come from dark, gritty graphic novels, or from webcomics, or anything of that nature.

It came from a newspaper.

bill watterson

A year after November, 1985 a daily comic strip by a man named Bill Watterson was running in 250 newspapers nationwide. The strips often tackled the daily antics of Calvin, a mischievous, imaginative, and surprisingly philosophical six year old and his sarcastic, equally philosophical best friend / stuffed tiger Hobbes, Granted, I wasn’t even a thought in either of my parents’ lives at this point. I was only 2 when the strip’s syndication ended in 1995.

Calvin and Hobbes is often considered the holy grail of Sunday strips, the pinnacle of the funny pages, and is without a doubt one of the most enduring tales in the world of graphic novels. It’s one that I can still stay up late and flip through time and time again, no shortage of humor from the last time, not an ounce of boredom, and not a sliver of the wit lost. Watterson himself was actually one of the inspirations of Gavin Aung Than’s Zen Pencils comic I mentioned in my post from last week.

But why does this comic resound with so many people? Why has it endured the test of time? What makes it so special?

Calvin-and-Hobbes-Euphoria

Imagination is Everything

Did you read that strip above? That’s a six year old and his stuffed tiger. Those thoughts are astronomically complicated / sarcastic / hilarious to be coming from these characters. And that’s just it. The antics of Calvin and Hobbes almost always come back around with something more than a weak-ass feel-good moral. They discover real life lessons. They grow together as friends. They learn about hardship, girls, the world’s expectations, and the importance of the simple things. You’d be hard-pressed to flip through a C&H compilation and not find at least 2 dozen strips that relate to your life.

But the comic isn’t all heavy thinking and life pondering. A lot of it is goofing off: sledding, building (demented) snowmen, starting clubs, making forts, and torturing the babysitter are all included in this package. I’m sure you’ve all seen the bumper stickers and the shirts and that dorky shit with a demented Calvin-lookalike peeing on things or flipping the bird, but that shit’s all bootleg. Bill Watterson never, to this day, has sold merchandising, film, tv, or any type of rights for C&H.

In some panels, Calvin is Spaceman Spiff, getting into and out of trouble in far-off galaxies. In others, he’s Stupendous Man, saving the world from total annihilation. In others, he flips the role – he’s a Godzilla-sized six year old terrorizing the town! He’s a t-rex rampaging through modern-day museums. Calvin’s imagination takes us everywhere we could ever possibly hope to go. Give he and Hobbes a cardboard box, and hilarity is bound to ensue.

lolwat

Memory Lane

The funny thing is, I can’t remember why I first picked up a C&H book. My memory of it is hazy. I remember being at my public library when I was only in grade school. I had rode my bike across town to get there, and I think I was looking in the section to see if I could find some old Garfield or Peanuts books to see what the fuss was about. As I searched the shelves, I stumbled on something I was unfamiliar with. Calvin and Hobbes? Curious.

A few flips through the book, and I decided it was coming home with me. The panels I read were funny, but not in a lame Family Circus kind of way. The humor was smart, not dumbed down or cheap. I took it home, read it, and immediately went back to retrieve the other 3 or so that were there.

Calvin and Hobbes books were the only books I ever did the quintessential “flashlight-under-the-covers” routine for. I would stay up and read them until my eyes got droopy. I remember the immense disappointment I felt when I had ran through all the library had to offer me. Fast forward some decade-and-a-half or so years, and I’m in college, on a date at a bookstore with a certain T.Hust (you’re all jealous), and while looking through a section of adolescent lit, what do my eyes fall on?

The “kid in a candy store” didn’t have shit on me. If I had bought that book any faster, it would have caught fire. Going back and reading through it again, I know my nostalgia lens hasn’t compromised my feelings about this comic strip. If anything, my age and experience have allowed me to better understand jokes that would otherwise soar over my head.

calvin-hobbes1Whether you’re a fan of comics or not, I know for a fact when sifting through a newspaper in a waiting room, you jump to the comics section. As of late, there might not even be one in your local paper. They’ve gotten smaller and smaller with the passage of time.

If you haven’t ever experienced the antics of Calvin and Hobbes, please do. All at once the scholar, the artist, the child, and the adult in me light up when I read C&H. To me, something that powerful, something that has that effect on a person, is something everyone should experience at least once.

Pulchra memoria

You know, I’ve never been on “vacation.” Not in the idyllic, get-away to a beach or a cabin in the woods sense. I’ve had time off, and I’ve travelled, but I’ve never been able to just laze about on a beach. It’s a dream of mine to be able to take the ladyfriend and I on a cruise or something like that eventually, but right now the moths in my wallet are starving.

All that being said, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s graphic novel “This One Summer” is quite the one-two punch. In a nutshell, it deals with the coming-of-age tale of Rose Wallace and her friend Windy at their summer cottages at Awago Beach.

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Photo CC- by Kim Seng – is this really paradise, or just what we’re tempered to consider paradise?

The Story:

I’ve gotta give it to Mariko Tamaki, I was never a teenage girl, but she nails all the struggles of the transition between being a kid and a teenager / “young adult”. Rose has been going to this cottage with her parents since she was five, but something’s different about this year. The rose colored glasses are starting to crack. Rose’s parents are fighting, her dad is immature, her mom is reserved and on-edge, and her friend, Windy, is a bit immature for her tastes. The book is filled with its fair share of carefree summery fuckery; Rose and Windy take an affinity to horror movies, swimming, the freedom of being able to spend their own money (on candy, but still), but for every carefree moment there are three that are emotionally exhausting.

Rose and Windy (moreso Rose) take a fascination with some local teenagers who run a c-store. They’re your typically crude, bumbling teenagers, but the mysterious of their romances and where their crude behavior / vocabulary comes from fascinates the younger girls. I remember being a kid and incorporating certain.. uh.. explicit words I didn’t quite understand in my vocabulary, and being red-faced when I was caught using them.

Largely, the story tackles the conflicts people come across in their life, despite being in “paradise.” Pregnancy, puberty, relationships, issues everyone deals with one way or another. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the story after I first finished the book. I had to chew on it for awhile. There are some loose ends that are never tied off, but that’s how life is. There is often no answer to the question. It was interesting to peer into the world of a pre-teen girl, though. While the book is by no means “feminist,” it is very new-wave, demonstrating how certain sexist misconceptions get placed into girls’ heads, featuring non-conventional characters (adoptive parents, lesbians, larger women who don’t look like Barbie dolls). The story really has to be read to be appreciated.

Copyright – Jillian Tamaki

The Artwork

This is where “This One Summer” really shone. Jillian Tamaki has made some of the best artwork I’ve seen in a graphic novel to date. Her style consists of some very stylized backgrounds, with some simpler looking characters – a technique Scott McCloud in “Understanding Comics” mentions is often used to make it easier to substitute yourself into the character’s shoes. The colors are very de-saturated, mostly blue line shading that makes the entire book feel like a memory.

Copyright – Jillian Tamaki

And that’s precisely what the book is – a memory. Not just of Rose, but of any of us who have experienced some difficulty coming into adolescence. Tamaki makes frequent usage of some interesting techniques, including crazy shaped speech bubbles, written out sounds in true comic book fashion (click, splash, whif, etc.), and a really great shot of the ocean that, after a page turn, becomes the sky for the next scene.

When it’s necessary, characters are drawn in more fleshed-out detail to add some weight to the seriousness of certain scenes. The artwork of this novel is what kept me page turning, perhaps even moreso than the story. I love it. It’s simplistic enough when the mood is light, like when Windy dances around Rose in what is surely a Calvin and Hobbes throwback panel, but when Rose’s parents (Alice and Evan) are going at it, the detail becomes much more surreal.

The artwork is highly non-conventional in that there are multi-page spreads, often no panels at all, and often entire portions of blank page sectioned off for text. It helps to break up the pacing of what is actually quite long for a graphic novel.

Copyright – Jillian Tamaki

The Verdict

“This One Summer” evokes this feeling from me like there’s so much under the surface that I’m not quite scraping up. It’s there. I know it is. It’s hidden right under the sand. But even just looking at the surface, I enjoyed “This One Summer” thoroughly. I think it would make a great staple for Young Adult lit classes, as well as those looking to break into graphic novels. It’s more serious (to me) than something like Laura Lee Gulledge’s “Page by Paige”, has an art style I’m in love with, and despite having weighty elements, isn’t serious to the point of inspiring depression. I’d say give it a go. It was, after all, one of Dr. Ellington’s favorite books of 2014. 

To close, here’s this:

Aestas

As I stare at this empty text box, something Scott McCloud says in his textbook, for lack of a better term, on graphic novels, rings true in my head. He emphasizes that something that is unique to the comic as a medium of communication, is the significance of absence.

Wait, what?

I mean, novels do it to an extent. Oftentimes a chapter will end with an exceptionally shocking event, and those are the last words of the page before you flip it. But it isn’t the same. In a comic, a blank panel contains nothing, but suggests everything. A narrative in novel form can’t do that, at least not in the same way. The way your mind fills the gap between what is suggested and what is reality, jumping the empty space between panels of a graphic novel, is referred to as closure.

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Photo CC-by Tom Magllery, and I shudder to think of what a “manly closure” entails

That sentence sounds far too serious for a comic book, doesn’t it? Closure. Finality, mortality, the terminal destination, the ultimate, etc, etc. I’ve done my preaching on this blog about comics as a serious art form. The unconvinced aren’t going to be convinced, and for them, I am genuinely sorry. They are intentionally depriving themselves of a world of learning and growth that could provide invaluable. I’ve made my case for and against capes. The short of it is that to your brain, it’s all the same. Dickens and Gaiman fire off the same synapses. Disagree all you want, the truth of science doesn’t care about your belief.

If you haven’t gathered, I’m working independently with Dr. Ellington this semester in a quest to study the graphic novel. I’ve spouted on about them before, but I felt like I needed a true foundation before I could actually speak with any credibility. Like so many before me, I’ve started with Scott McCloud’s textbook-cleverly-disguised-as-a-graphic-novel, “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.” The book provides a handy history of the comic, a rigid criteria of the difference between a comic and a picture or a cartoon, and a handy glossary of terms to encompass what are some pretty nebulous ideas. For a graphic novel, it’s incredibly dense. The only one I’ve read so far to rival it has probably been Watchmen, which is, dare I say it…? A classic.

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Did I really just say that? Photo CC-by Fellciano Guimaraes

Upon further review of the book, I find that it’s a year younger than I am, which is daunting, and probably one of the most universally accepted and praised books on the graphic novel, which is impressive. I can see why, as well. I’ve only read three chapters, and my mind has been blown numerous times. Like, it’s getting to be a mess in here. One of these particular thoughts that threw me for a loop is an analysis of why we’re so attracted to cartoons (be us young or old). Let me borrow some of McCloud’s thunder for a moment (see what I did there?)

When I put a semi-colon next to a closing parenthesis, what do you see? 🙂
You see a face. No matter what you do, you cannot un-see a face. It’s the simplest pair of characters, and yet your brain makes it into a simplified version of one of the most complex things to convey in drawing or in descriptive storytelling. Isn’t that incredible? Cartoons (be them the Saturday morning style or a single panel of “Family Circus”), amplify by simplifying. You didn’t mishear me. You didn’t hear me at all, for that matter.

By stripping down a visual style to the most barebones details needed to retain meaning, the meaning retains the greater significance. You can focus more on ideas or concepts and worry less about realism. Another reason cartoons will favor simplicity is because it’s easier to insert yourself into the story. Prime case-in-point: Bella in the Twilight novels. She’s so agonizingly plain and boring that 13 year old girls and depressed housewives can effortlessly drop into her shoes and take her place without thinking about it. Without characters that can be identified with, or a world that readers can be immersed in, you’ve got nothing.

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Photo CC-by Jayhem, maybe there’s something to all this “We have to go deeper!” stuff.

This is me scratching the surface of McCloud’s work in the book. I mean, I’m only on chapter four, and I don’t want to worship the text, but it does provide a great diving board for true dissection and analysis of the graphic novel. It’ll be me feeling it out as I go, but in blog posts following this one, I intend to go over the narrative (or lack thereof) that I find in any comics, as well as the significance in the art style. I am not an artist, at least, not in the drawing-painting sense. This entire endeavor equates to me looking at a bookshelf, going “Oo, this looks kinda neat,” and then putting on my literary pants and trying to find significance.

But that’s life, right? I believe it’s more about creating significance than it is about finding it. We’ll see if I feel the same way when mid-term rolls around.

Quaerere