David Small has made his name illustrating children’s picture books.* You know that; I didn’t, until Melissa told me about Small and passed me Stitches, Small’s first graphic novel, a medium about which I do know something. In the graphic novel market, I am not this book’s target audience, in that I find most graphic memoirs self-absorbed and overdetermined. I like Harvey Pekar in small doses, admire Mary Fleener from a distance, and consider the canonical cornerstone Maus excellent but overrated. Persepolis is the only recent graphic memoir to pull me in, in part because Marjane Satrapi had a truly big story to tell.
The story of David Small’s childhood and adolescence isn’t big, but it’s mightily weird, and he has both a sharp narrative angle and technique to burn. His story encompasses a cold mother with a tragic secret, a doctor father who personifies the blithe arrogance of the 1950s professional class, and deranged grandparents out of Sherwood Anderson by way of Cormac McCarthy. Small the character travels from confusion through rage and finally withdrawal, while Small the author never lets his (apparently) well-adjusted present divert the reader’s attention from his deeply troubled past. The narrative emerges from young Small’s hermetic point of view, but not because mature Small shares too many graphic memoirists’ narcissism. Instead, he demonstrates that self-absorption is both the affliction and the compass of youth, like a hormonal peyote trip from which we all get to learn and need to advance.
I don’t know Small’s work as an illustrator, but I assume he primarily does single images, which makes his flair for sequential storytelling especially impressive. Although he doesn’t come close to Will Eisner’s talent as a cartoonist, he has obviously studied Eisner’s narrative techniques, and few artists in contemporary comics have his facility for combining deliberately mundane sequences with arresting, even startling effects. Stitches accomplishes the rare feat of vividly depicting an ugly world to whose rich emotional landscape readers will want to return.
*from Melissa: my favorites are WHEN EVERYTHING CAME WITH DINOSAURS; THE LIBRARY; and IMOGENE'S ANTLERS, which Small also wrote.However, picking which David Small art is the best is like picking which chocolate cupcake is best. They're all good. I loved and was incredibly moved and horrified by STITCHES, but as it's not a kids' book and Greg is the graphic novel afficionado in the family, I decided to have him review it instead. Oh, and psst - Mr. Small - St. Louis is so close to some of your other tour stops...
Preorder STITCHES from an independent bookstore!
(Note from Melissa: this review is the first of what will be occasional reviews of graphic novels from my husband Greg, a lifelong comics nut who still picks up his books every Wednesday.)
In the past year, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline has become a cross-media extravaganza. By now, most readers of this site should be very familiar with the original novel that crept onto shelves seven years ago, especially in the wake of Gaiman’s Newbery Award last year for The Graveyard Book. In case anyone needs a refresher, Coraline tells the story of a teenaged girl who moves with her parents into a flat in a country house populated by vaguely disturbing oddballs. Craving more attention from her parents, Coraline delights in finding a secret passage that leads her into a seemingly better version of her own life. But things (as you had to figure) are not what they seem, and Coraline soon must confront a threat that tests her mettle and changes her sense of the world.
Probably you know about the recent animated film of the story, crafted by Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick in the same, painstaking stop motion technique that brought that earlier classic to vivid, eerie life. Selick outdoes himself on Coraline: the narrative pulls the viewer along breathlessly, and the film perfectly captures Gaiman’s characteristic blend of whimsy, wonder, and horror. Respectful of the material without falling into slavish reverence, Selick adds a young male character whom he incorporates perfectly into the plot. (Maybe Selick had to add the boy to assuage somebody’s fear about pulling in a male audience, but feminism wins out; Coraline has to save him.) Selick’s visual imagination matches anything you’ve seen in an animated feature, especially in the film’s 3D version. Early reports on the DVD/Blu-ray release have panned the attempt to translate the 3D effects for the small screen, but the regular version will do you just fine. At a time when Pixar has brought animated features to new heights, Coraline the film stands up to, well, Up, or anything else.
Probably you don’t know about Coraline the graphic novel, and if so you’re missing something great. P. Craig Russell adapted the book, as he recently adapted one of Gaiman’s Sandman stories, The Dream Hunters. Russell has adapted everything from Wagner to Wilde in his thirty-plus year career; he’s like the Kenneth Branagh of comics, but more diverse in his tastes and more consistent in his results. Russell’s Coraline has smoother fantasy sheen than Selick’s spiky Gorey-isms, substitutes poetic beauty for Selick’s eye-popping visual magic, and hews more closely to the novel while creating the same sense that the story was designed for this particular medium. Enjoy these two adaptations one after the other and you’ll get a sense of the broad expanse of emotion and imagination that Gaiman’s tale can traverse.
Almost certainly you haven’t seen the off-Broadway musical presentation of Coraline, adapted by David Greenspan with songs by Stephin Merritt of the brilliant band Magnetic Fields. You should keep it that way. I’ll confess that I take a dim view of most musical theater, but this is exactly the kind of departure my lot should go for – spare, edgy, with pop-identified music. Unfortunately, absolutely nothing on the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theatre worked for me. The problems begin with the creepily outfitted but simple and static set, which constantly requires characters to say things like “I’m outside now”; continue through the sparse, monotonous use of percussion and a single pianist to breathe life into Merritt’s excessively fussy songs; and reach a nadir when a middle-aged actress, Jane Houdyshell, takes the stage as Coraline – whose narrative arc is meant to say something about how kids relate to the adult world. I like Brechtian distancing as much as the next lefty, but if you’re going to hold a fantasy at a far emotional remove, you’d better have something to say, and this show doesn’t.
Oh, Owly, how I love you.
I was sent some review copies of OWLY graphic novels, and I am only too happy to sing their praises here. I can't believe I never have before. See, Owly (and his best friend, Wormy) and I are old friends now. I have an Owly shirt. I have a stuffed Owly (with stuffed Wormy on his head). And, thanks to the review copies, I now know there are more books than the two I had, and got to read them as well as revisit the first couple.
OWLY is a wordless graphic novel series that I would shelve in my elementary books if I had to be pinned down on a place, but obviously soft hearts of all ages will love it if I am sitting here telling you that I do (and I am closer to 40 than I'd like to discuss). It's the story of Owly, a little owl, and his best friend Wormy, and their adventures in their forest home. (I'm going to completely spoil the first novella for you, so you can see what sort of stories they are, but this isn't HARRY POTTER - knowing the plot isn't going to ruin your enjoyment.)
When we first meet Owly in THE WAY HOME, he is looking for a friend. He startles some birds into spilling their bowl of seeds and flying away, and with a sigh, he refills the bowl for them. When they don't return, he goes to investigate a sound he hears. Finding some fireflies in a jar, he releases them, but they too fly away. Then a hard rainstorm begins, and he finds a little worm clinging to some grass in the middle of a puddle, unable to swim to safety. Owly takes him home, tucks him into bed, and nurses him back to health.
When Wormy (for it is he) wakes up, he is first afraid of Owly, but quickly taken in by the owl's kindness. Owly wants Wormy to stay with him, but Wormy explains that he was separated from his family by the storm. Owly consults a map so he can take Wormy home. With the eventual help of the fireflies Owly set free early on, they find Wormy's family. Owly wins them over despite their initial fear, and after sharing a hearty meal, sadly sets off for home alone. But soon he hears a familiar voice, and turns to see Wormy behind him, all of his possessions tied up in a sack on a stick. Wormy's parents are waving goodbye, giving their son their blessing to strike out on his own. Owly helps Wormy up to sit on his head, and the friends (and now roommates) head for home together.
Runton's expressive art gives life to not only Owly and Wormy and their friends, but also to their thoughts and dialogue through the use of clever rebus-like thought and dialogue bubbles. If Owly thinks Wormy would be happy if he went outside, for instance, you'll get one bubble on one side of Owly's head with a picture of an open door, an arrow pointing outside, and an exclamation point; on the other side of his head will be a bubble containing a picture of a happy little sun, an equal sign, and a picture of Wormy with a big smile on his face. The only words that appear in these novels are sound words (like SPLASH if someone steps in a puddle) and words on anything that Owly & Co. might be reading, like books or letters.
You don't need words to follow the stories, and you don't need words to fall in love with the characters. Owly is, for lack of a better description, darn cute. I mean, really, really darn cute. Wormy might be even cuter. The birds are cute. The bunnies are cute. It's ALL cute, but not in a rot your teeth kind of way. Owly is a true friend to those he knows - loyal and loving, encouraging and warm. He's the kind of character you want your kids to fall in love with. Along the way, you'll fall in love with him too.
I can't wait to curl up with Molly and an Owly book, piecing the story together by looking at this art that I love, listening to her tell me what Owly and Wormy are doing next. Even though I'll have figured it out first, it'll be even sweeter sharing it with her. Share Owly with someone you love, or with anyone who could use a simple, lovely friendship series.
Order OWLY from an independent bookstore! (Link goes to book 1.)
Readers of Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, the Eisner Award-nominated first installment in Ted Naifeh's Courtney Crumrin series, should definitely not skip the bitingly witty and insightful introduction penned by Kelly Crumrin (Naifeh's real-life girlfriend). It speaks of childhood fears and the outgrowing thereof and sets the stage for the book's dark and sardonic tone.
This graphic novel largely sets Courtney, the protagonist, against almost everyone else in her life: her clueless parents, her shallow classmates, and of course, "the night things" themselves; her only true ally is her Uncle Aloysius, feared and reviled by all except Courtney, his kindred spirit.
Courtney is a girl without a country. Isolated and different from everyone who surrounds her, she is drawn into a dark and magical world of goblins and monsters and uses her quick wits and strength of character to save herself and others.
The language captures the essence of pre-teen angst, and the black and white ink artwork evokes the darkness, doom, and gloom of both Courtney's mood and the scary situations in which she finds herself … the drawings of the goblin market are especially memorable.
The intended audience, according to the "Youth / Age 7+" stamp placed by the publisher, seems to be elementary school students, but it's perhaps more suitable for a middle school or even early high school audience due to some of the language used, a situation when Courtney is kissed by a boy against her will, and some of the more frightening scenes.
Without being preachy at all, this book shows young readers that even the scariest things in life – be they monsters or loneliness – can be overcome when a person is clever and brave.
That the smartest, toughest, most sensible character on the scene is a bad-assed young girl makes me really excited that this series exists and pumped to read book two.
The first book in the Amelia Rules! series hilariously and heartbreakingly depicts the coming of age theme. The characterizations of Amelia, her parents, her aunts, her teachers, and her friends bring to life the chaotic existence of life's players through the eyes of a precocious and unforgettable 9-year-old girl.
The story is an episodic look at Amelia's life through a series of experiences and adventures, including surviving the hell of gym class as well as family holidays.
The writing is sharp and funny, and the illustrations are wild, colorful, and in the vein of a traditional comic strip. The book is quite entertaining and amusing and somehow also manages to impart the grief and isolation experienced by a child of divorce.
The intended audience is elementary school children, but the book can certainly be enjoyed by tweens, teens, and even adults, at whom the author winks throughout the book with references to Stan Lee, Elvis Costello, the Replacements, and Billy Joel.
This is an appropriate selection for any child who is suffering from the effects of divorce, and it beautifully demonstrates the "true spirit of Christmas" in a section of the book that made this reviewer cry into her cappuccino while reading at the coffee shop.
It's also a wonderful example of the age-old childhood theme of how one's friends can become one's family when young people feel alienated from most of the adults in their lives … these kids are almost like the elementary school version of the Brat Pack.
This book is hereby deemed by me to be an essential selection for all elementary school, middle school, and public libraries because of its ability to bring forth laughter and tears and to make lonely kids feel less alone.
At first glance, this book might seem silly and superficial, but its comic nature is tinged with sadness and realism, Amelia is ultimately introspective and wise, and the book conveys some great life lessons. One of the best lessons is from Aunt Tanner, who tells Amelia, "Any time you find magic in this world, you have to fight hard to keep it."
The world we knew is gone. The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe causing the dead to rise and feed on the living.
So says the back cover of The Walking Dead, Volume One: Days Gone By, written by Robert Kirkman with art by Tony Moore.
This 2006 book is the first in a continuing series and features Rick, a police officer, as its protagonist. He's an honorable, handsome, very resourceful man who loves his wife and son. The story follows Rick as he awakens from a coma to find the world around him irrevocably changed … it's human vs. zombie now, and he must find a way to survive against all odds. He meets a range of other characters, representing all walks of life, who form a camp in the woods to hide from the zombies.
Kirkman's realistic writing style aptly captures the excitement, the fear, the suspense, and the heartache, and Moore's excellent black and white pen and ink illustrations convey the terror, grotesqueness, and emotion of the story with intimate, intricate detail.
This book is essentially the story of one man's journey toward survival and shows the prevailing goodness of humanity in the darkest of times. It reminds me of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road in the way it portrays the desperation and loneliness of man when faced with the apocalyptic unthinkable.
Adults might consider reading this as an accompaniment to The Road because they both focus on surviving with loved ones in a desolate, ever-changed, terrifying world. (I'm not recommending The Road for young audiences, as I am still somewhat traumatized by reading it at 33.)
There's some rough language in The Walking Dead, and the zombie scenes are certainly disgusting and graphic, but a mature teen can definitely handle it, and teens will also probably enjoy the romantic tensions in the story.
The Walking Dead, a unique and devastatingly moving twist on the traditional zombie genre with its focus on love, family, emotions, and the ties that bind – particularly touching is the scene when the characters sit around the campfire in the snow sharing what they used to do in their "past lives" – is an essential selection, in my opinion, for public libraries and possibly even high school libraries. It will definitely leave readers wanting to read the next volume and find out what happens next.
One! Hundred! Demons! is a wonderful book by Lynda Barry, a cartoonist, novelist, and playwright whose work appears all over tarnation. The deserving recipient of both an Alex Award and the 2003 Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Album, this is the sort of book that makes a person want to sing from the mountaintops about the glories of autobiography and the lessons learned from one's own childhood and life.
The coming of age theme is brought to life by Lynda Barry's look back at her own -- she is the main character and unflinchingly casts herself in an often unflattering light. The plot is an episodic series of anecdotes about Barry from early childhood to adulthood.
Barry's writing style is an appealing combination of humorous, self-deprecating, and lyrical, and the art is bright, colorful, and engaging – in addition to the cartoon watercolors of people and places, Barry employs the use of collages made of photographs, glitter, and other real-life, tangible items to portray her nostalgia.
She takes herself and the reader on a walk down memory lane by recreating her experiences in a way that everyone can relate to on some level – we have had pain in our childhoods, we have felt out of place, we have loved and lost people and pets and beloved childhood blankets and stuffed animals, we have kissed people we shouldn't have, we have tried to create art that means something to us, we have been insanely glued to the TV during the 2000 chad-related presidential election drama. A
ll of us have done these things in whole or in part, and Barry has the amazing gift of tapping into the experiences that make us all human both collectively and individually.
While perhaps only adults have enough perspective and life experience to be able to relate to the whole range of stories told here, older teens can certainly appreciate some of them, will definitely relate to the mortification factor, and will enjoy the book on a different level. This book has a wonderful, whimsical ability to make the heart break and soar.
In Michel Rabagliati'sPaul has a Summer Job, the title character, like Thoreau and countless others before him, chooses to lose the trappings of real life and go to the woods in order to find himself.
The plot follows him as he drops out of school and starts and quits a mindless job he hates before deciding on a whim to spend the summer in the woods as a camp counselor, where he evolves, to his initial surprise, into the Paul he really is deep down and the Paul he wants to be.
The writing style is largely introspective and lets the reader see deeply into Paul's soul and psyche. The black and white pen and ink illustrations wonderfully capture the natural setting of the woods – the trees, the hills, the lake, the wildlife – and the personalities of Paul, his fellow counselors, and the young campers.
The purpose of this book is to take a look back at a defining moment in the history of Paul's life and how his summer as a camp counselor indelibly changed him, and it is achieved very effectively with heartfelt nostalgia and affection towards his old friends and experiences at camp.
This book is primarily suited for older teens – there is brief nudity and a sex scene, but it's depicted sweetly, not gratuitously. Readers who have spent a summer at camp, whether as a camper or counselor, will recognize themselves in these characters – the sacred, special, hilarious times at camp and the bonds formed between those who were there become frozen in one's memory and heart, and this book captures that sentiment beautifully.
Paul, sitting around a campfire, singing under the stars: "There you are, in the middle of nowhere, with a group of people you like, and suddenly, you lift off. Without noticing it, you're in a bubble. You become one with the world around you, and everything else just fades away."
The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot is the story of a young English girl's quest to survive the wounds of being abused by her father as a child. Helen is both terrified and brave, both scarred and healing, and both enslaved by her past and striving to break free.
The story follows her from her days as a homeless young girl in a cold London winter after running away from home to her odyssey through England's Lake District, the home of her hero, Beatrix Potter, as she finds a new family and strives to confront and disentangle herself from her abusive father.
The writing style is lyrical and powerful, drawing the reader into Helen's journey, and the watercolor illustrations are simply beautiful – they capture Helen's transformation wonderfully and depict the outside world with highly detailed attention, from the streets, buildings, and bridges of London to the spectacular countryside of the Lake District.
The book portrays, through the life of one girl, the idea that abuse is survivable, that a person can overcome his or her darkest and deepest pain, and that we are all stronger than we think they are.
Several scenes will become indelibly imprinted in the reader's mind, particularly a scene in which Helen stands alone atop a hill overlooking Lake Derwentwater, crying and shaking her fists at the sky, proclaiming that her abuse was not her fault, and also a scene in which she fearlessly stands up to her father.
Suitable for older teens due to its mature content, only a reader with a heart of stone would not be moved to tears by this book. Both its story and art are incredible, it masterfully connects Helen's experience with the life and works of the legendary Beatrix Potter, and its message is powerful and enduring.
(It won the 1996 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album: Reprint, was nominated for a 1996 Harvey Award, and in 2006, YALSA named it on the list of Great Graphic Novels. You can find more information on the book here.)