A Tourist in the Land of Graphic Novels

Until recently, I’ve only read a handful of graphic novels, a couple of adult ones (Sandman series, Watchmen) and some for kids (like the Lunch Lady and Baby Mouse series, plus quasi graphic stories like Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid).  So I decided to dip my toes into the land of graphic novels to see what the fuss is about, staying away (for now) from manga and superhero stories.  One thing I learned is that this seems to be a good medium for dark and disturbing stories, or maybe people who can both write and draw are dark and disturbing.  Here are brief reviews of an eclectic mix that I enjoyed:

For adults and teens

Cover Image Mercury by Hope Larson
Mercury, by Hope Larson (Athenium Books, 2010).  A moody YA book that mixes history, romance, family secrets, and magical realism, Mercury tells the parallel stories of two teenage girls in Nova Scotia, one in the 1850s and one in the present.  Josey Fraser, the girl in the past, falls in love with a mysterious stranger who has found gold on her dad’s property, but her premonitions of tragedy soon come true.  Tara Fraser, one of Josey’s descendants, is a runner who finds a mysterious locket and unravels her family’s history, while also falling for a boy at school.  The story is starkly drawn in black and white, and I loved the near-wordless climax that involves a man-faced crow and a contracting spiral pit with hundreds of snakes.

Cover image Bayou by Jeremy Love
Bayou vol. 1, by Jeremy Love (DC Comics 2009)  Bayou vol. 1 is a deeply disturbing story set in the sharecropping Louisiana of the 1930s where racism and lynching for minor offenses is widespread.  Lee is black child who can see swamp monsters and child angels, and who witnesses her white friend being swallowed whole by the (white) monster Cotton-Eye.  Her father is accused and jailed for the girl’s disappearance, and Lee ends up on a trek to save him from a lynching, with the help of the (black) swamp monster Bayou.  The story is dark, scary, and violent, but told in muted and warm colors. Bayou uses surreal magic and monsters to tell the nightmarish truth of unmitigated racism and its violent legacy.  

Cover image The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
The Night Bookmobile, by Audrey Niffenegger (Abrams, 2010).  Although bound and presented like a children’s picture book, this is not one for the kids.  Alexandra is a book-lover who encounters the Night Bookmobile, which turns out to be a magical, personalized library of every book she has ever read.  She encounters this Airstream camper only a few times in her life, but it captivates and causes her to pay an increasingly high price to keep it a part of her world.  I didn’t love the artwork, except for the kind, gentlemanly librarian whose expressions are perfectly rendered.

Cover image Logicomix by Doxiadis & Papdimitriou
Logicomix, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papdimitriou (Bloomsbury, 2009).  This is a fascinating introduction to the life and ideas of mathmetician/ philosopher Bertrand Russell, told in graphic novel form.  The book impressively and ambitiously captures the tumult and passions of the search for the foundations of mathematics and logic in the early 20th century, and throws in romance, madness, history, and the Greek play Oresteia.  A neat trick that keeps the story accessible is having the authors and illustrators insert themselves at various points in the story, debating how to present it most effectively.  I always like books that teach me something in an entertaining way, and finding one that does so in an artistic and visual medium is a nice bonus.

Cover image The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming
The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, by Ann Marie Fleming (Penguin, 2007).  This is an illustrated memoir of a filmmaker who travels the world to unearth the story about her great-grandfather, a Chinese acrobat and magician named Long Tack Sam, who was one of the best-known vaudeville acts in the early 20th century.  Told in a mixture of cartoons, photos, old ads and newspaper clippings, and comic book stories (which each describe conflicting versions of his early life), the book reads like a wildly annotated family scrapbook.  The author discovers the fascinating story of Long Tack Sam's life, who survived wars and racism, whose interracial marriage to an Austrian woman made newspaper headlines in 1908, and who was a worldwide legend in his field, and wonders why her own family and the modern world know little about him.  Luckily for us and thanks to this book (which is an adaptation of her film on the same topic), we now know a bit more.

For kids

Cover image Robot Dreams by Sara Varon
Robot Dreams, by Sara Varon (First Second, 2007) This is a wordless graphic novel for kids that I read with my girls (9 and 6), with equal parts pleasure and dread, because I didn’t know while I was reading it whether it would have a happy ending.  A dog mail orders and builds a robot friend and together they embark on adventures.  They are separated by bad luck (even my kids knew that robots shouldn’t swim in the ocean or they would rust) and time, and most of the book consists of the bittersweet efforts of the two trying to resurrect their friendship -- the robot in his rust-encrusted dreams and the dog in his efforts to find replacement friends.  The ending is not happy, and not sad, but thoughtful, hopeful, and melancholic.  I enjoyed the super simple graphics, the expressive characters, and the exploration of what friendship means, but my kids did not get the simple happy ending they craved.    

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