November 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Graphic Tales

The graphic novel Skim by author Mariko Tamaki and illustrator Jillian Tamaki goes several steps beyond the typical teenage outsider story. A very strong subplot involving the quintessential popular girl raises the entire book up a level in relevance. At its heart though this is the story of many teenage girls -- a whole private school full of girls -- and who they love, how they bond and the ways in which they torment each other. It’s a dark slightly subversive delight that never ceased to amaze me. Mostly it’s just very, very cool and I do hope that it doesn’t get overlooked in the masses of YA fiction for teen girls.

“Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a goth girl studying Wicca who is trapped in private school hell. Her best friend Lisa is starting to drift away and become immersed in the more conventional aspects of high school life. Both girls are shocked however by the way in which their classmates are galvanized by the suicide of the possibly gay ex-boyfriend of the school’s most popular girl, Katie. In an obsessive frenzy many of the girls form clubs to “save” each other and embark on plans and projects to promote life. Katie’s accidental (or on purpose) fall a short time later amps up the already frenetic atmosphere to the level of insanity as the girls fall all over Katie to urge her to live in spite of her loss. The fact that Katie and the boy had broken up before his death seems to be lost on everyone but Skim, as does the hypocrisy of this sudden compulsion to care. (Because of course there’s a lot of meanness directed at those who don’t seem to care seriously enough or the right way -- this is still high school after all.)

Through all of this, Skim determinedly maintains her semi-invisible existence in the school, clinging to the kindness of her popular drama teacher Ms. Archer and trying still to be friends with Lisa. As Skim’s crush on Ms. Archer develops into a gentle romance readers will likely not be surprised. It is the development of Skim’s friendship with Katie that is really unexpected -- but it makes sense in the greater context of the story and provides both levity and compassion in the face of some meanness from the “live life” crowd. (Who want everyone to live only the way they think they should live, of course.)

I was impressed by this comic for many reasons but particularly the way that Skim and Lisa weathered many storms but didn’t lose sight of each other in the process. The whole book was an excellent example of the insanity that reigns in the teenage years and how some of us come through stronger and some just seem to go insane. Skim makes it because she is smart enough to value true friends and Katie survives because she is brave enough to see people as they really are. There’s a very unique story here and writing it in graphic novel format -- Jillian Tamaki’s artwork honestly expresses all the hurt and horrified feelings here --is a genius combination of message and format. This is a wonderful book and perfect for anyone who thinks school is just a gentler word for asylum.

Mariko Tamaki also has a new title out from the late lamented Minx line at DC, Emiko Superstar. With artist Steve Rolston she introduces a character who once was a quietly resigned geek but now is facing the longest, dullest summer of her life where even her geek friends have abandoned her. Banished from the couch by her mother she takes a job babysitting that exposes her to the dirty underbelly of suburban myth (as in, all happy marriages are not happy). That would be entertaining enough for a summer but one day Emiko discovers a group of urban performance artists and falls head over heels in love with their show. She restyles herself as a poet and takes to the stage. She can’t resist the rush from the crowd, or the idea that she is finally more than the boring kid she always believed herself to be.

In both Emiko and Skim, Tamaki is clearly writing about girls who find their own unique way in the world and do it in such unusual, and in Emiko’s case spectacular, ways. Rolston does an excellent job of drawing real figures, with real shapes and sizes, just as Tamaki accomplished in Skim. I hesitate to say these two books are life affirming or present solid role teen models because that always seems like a cop-out when it comes to YA lit but really it is true. Emiko Superstar is one of the strongest books I’ve read in the Minx line yet and on the basis of these two novels, Mariko Tamaki just became a writer whose work I will buy immediately.

Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was a well received spookfest when it was released several years ago but as good as the novel is, the new graphic novel edition is a must read. Gaiman’s story remains excellent but P. Craig Russell’s adaptation with its chilling visual portrayal of the “other mother” is a true page turner. There is an accepted awfulness about her; a sharpness of purpose that she very nearly glows with, and the more Coraline challenges this casual monster, the more readers will fall into the story. Even if you have already read the prose version, Russell’s illustrations will blow you away. Consider it a companion to the novel and a must read for Gaiman fans.

For those unfamiliar with the story, young Coraline is gently bored out of her mind in her new home and faced with a nagging compulsion she can’t deny, uses a key to a long ignored door in the parlor. It should be bricked in, but with a click she steps into a darkness that leads to a mirror world and the home of the “other mother” who wants Coraline to stay; really really really wants her to stay.

How the girl escapes and then returns to save her parents and some other lost children is an excellent blend of mystery, adventure and horror. Perhaps most importantly though it is an examination of how a smart kid operates. Russell lets you see the resolve on Coraline’s face as she builds up her courage, her stubborn jaw and general stalwartness of character make her damn near heroic. It’s just so nice to see again how you can defeat the bad guy by pretty much only using your wits (okay and by befriending a very capable cat and having a wish stone but still, the wits are critical). Full color, hard cover, and a perfect match between art and words, this new version of a modern fantasy classic is wonderful and Coraline is the kind of smart and cynical young protagonist that any reader will find irresistible.

Anyone familiar with Eddie Campbell will know to expect the unexpected with his latest graphic novel (with Dan Best), The Amazing Adventures of Monsieur Leotard. In this dazzling release Campbell again weighs into history (as he most recently did in The Black Diamond Detective Agency). This time he follows the adventures of Etienne Leotard who takes over his famous uncle’s trapeze act upon his death. Etienne is not as gifted as his Uncle Jules however and struggles to maintain the success of the traveling circus to which he belonged. The story covers everything from a near circus tragedy, to romance with a tattooed woman, plus various misadventures with animals (both wild and tame), the sinking of the Titanic and a prison escape from Devil’s Island. Campbell and Best hold this globe trotting, epically plotted tale together through their characters, who form relationships both with themselves and the reader. As outlandish as some of the events appear to be (and with a talking bear it does get a little crazy), Monsieur Leotard is mostly the story of people who maintain deep friendships over more than fifty years, from the end of the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th. The intense humanity of this group, who as members of the circus were rarely treated humanely in that time period, focuses the story and makes it all fairly heartwarming -- with a huge marine disaster, a trial for the theft of the Mona Lisa and death by piranha thrown in for some excitement.

Campbell fills the pages with his trademark mixture of illustration styles. There is everything here from paintings that cover the fold to newspaper articles, diary excerpts and standard illustration. His art is always a key component to his books and in this respect Leotard seems even more impressive than his last title -- it is less dark in design but he also seems to have done a solid job of mixing shade and color to go with the circus storyline.

I think Campbell and Best have done an excellent job here with blending a healthy dose of European history with an inside look at circus culture and also -- mostly -- with one man’s attempt to live up to the challenge of succeeding a truly a great man. Etienne can not be his uncle Jules; no matter how hard he tries. But as the authors show, he carves out a significant life nonetheless, a life that does not change the world but does make his corner of it a better place. The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a small story told big and, along with Dan Best, another impressive achievement for the great talent of Eddie Campbell.

Another Minx title, Token, by Alisa Kwitney & Joelle Jones, takes a look at the unique struggles of children facing a parent’s second marriage. Jewish teen Shira lives in Miami Beach with her father, just down the hall from her grandmother and close to a dear family friend. Miami life is not nearly as glamorous as it used to be and she pines for those past eras and their inherent romance. In chapters titled for famous movies (“To Have and Have Not,” “It Takes a Thief,” etc.), Kwitney and Jones craft a poignant tale about a girl who seems to have only a few (and really charmingly sweet) worries until her widower father and a co-worker embark on a relationship that shakes her very foundations. No longer Daddy’s girl -- no longer sure even what her family is all about -- Shira falls for a drop dead gorgeous “bad boy” who sees her acting out. Fighting with her father, distancing herself from the older ladies she loves and getting into all kinds of trouble that even the boy thinks is foolish, Token sees Shira on a downward spiral that suggests a massive crash landing. How she reconciles the life she wants and the one she’s boxed herself into makes the final pages emotional and intense and sends this graphic novel solidly into its own corner of coming-of-age territory.

The one aspect of Token that I really want to stress is the way the authors look at how a parent’s second marriage can affect a child. Just the notion of her father being serious with someone is hard for Shira and when he makes changes to their lives to accommodate his new love (who is a very kind woman), Shira is deeply shaken. As much as the story is about her own teenage issues though it is also about how all too often parents do not realize how fragile the lives of the children can be. Family is a bedrock thing and when it changes for any reason, it can be very hard to take. Just how hard is what Token is all about and any teen who has been through the blended family experience is going to fall for this one.

Emmanuel Guibert’s Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope is a very impressive look at life in war and beyond through the memories of one man. The author/illustrator became acquainted with Cope in 1994 and as their friendship developed he shared his life story which Guibert who then translated it into graphic novel form. It was not an exciting life; even the episodes during the war are more terrifying for their hunger and exhaustion then blaze of bullets. The longer readers linger in Cope’s world the more compelling it becomes. With Guibert’s simple black and white drawings and easygoing style, readers will discover an endless number of truths that transcend pop culture’s version of the war. (At one point Cope recalls, “We were stationed in Normandy for two months because the army had misplaced our weapons and our vehicles.”) More than the war story, though, it is Cope’s lifelong search for truth, for “depth” as he describes it that will draw readers in. “Most Americans live on the surface of existence,” says Cope’s character, “I wanted to know its depths. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but it’s what I sincerely believed.”

In some ways, at least in the scope and pacing, Alan’s War will be reminiscent of Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Romance is not the point here though, although Cope does fall in love and marry. This story is far bigger; it is about Cope’s life, his choices and friendships and the fact that no matter how sensible he seems to be, that yearning for more is always with him. At the age of fifty, he had a sterling revelation: “After 18 months I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t lived my own life. I hadn’t lived the life of MYSELF. I had lived the life of the person others had wanted me to be; that’s different. And that person had never existed.”

It is both strange and wonderful that the recollections of an elderly man should reach out so effectively across generations to resonate with readers of all ages and backgrounds and yet Guibert accomplishes that with Alan Cope’s story. The idea of wanting more out of life and yet not knowing how to find it will remind many teens that asking questions and not being afraid to take chances can be the boldest statement they can make towards self fulfillment. Alan Cope, sadly, is gone, but his simple example will inspire. The more you read of Alan’s War the more you will find it unforgettable; easily one of my favorite books this year.

Using graphic novels and comic books to teach history is brilliant as far as I’m concerned and the Turning Points series from Aladdin shows just how well the format fits this subject matter. Specifically, Sons of Liberty by Marshall Poe and illustrated by Leland Purvis is a story in the vein of the classic Johnny Tremain. It follows young Nathaniel Smithfield as he slowly becomes immersed in the rebellion movement. Uniquely for this sort of story, Nathaniel’s family is split on whether to be loyalists or patriots and he and his sister find themselves at odds with their English-born parents. I thought it was interesting how Poe showed that being born in the colonies would affect someone’s perception of British rule. It does not even occur to Nathaniel’s parents to question the King but the children see no reason why they shouldn’t. This fundamental difference sparks many confrontations between parents and children as the years go by and Nathaniel grows from a ten-year-old child throwing rocks without a thought to an eighteen-year-old man shouldering a rifle on the infamous Lexington fields.

The artwork is crisp and clean and complements the historical novel without distracting from Nathaniel’s epic coming-of-age story. Sons of Liberty is a good choice as both an adventure story and historical drama and would serve equally well in the classroom and nightstand.

Finally, Holly Black already has a legion of fans, and rightfully so, but the first book in her new series with author and illustrator Ted Naifeh (creator of the fabulous Courtney Crumrin) is going to make her even more popular. The Good Neighbors: Kin is one of those “fairies are scary” sort of stories but steers clear of well trod paths to provide a solidly original tale. The combination of coming-of-age drama with a serious concern for the end of humanity is effectively told and the healthy dose of snarky humor will make this a big hit with teens. Black’s respect for her audience is obvious here, especially when her protagonist, Rue, reveals to her friends that she can see fairies and they seem to be intent upon destroying their town. Not everyone believes her however, until she gets some unexpected support from one of them:

“I believe you… This is the part in the movie where that guy says ‘Zombies? What zombies?’ Just before they eat his brains. I don’t want to be that guy.”

Exactly! Let’s not spend pages thinking Rue is crazy -- could we just acknowledge that really weird stuff is going on around here and consider that she might be right? That’s how you survive a zombie attack -- or in this case a fairy invasion. Black exploits that all obvious truth and thus does a superb job in The Good Neighbors of writing a modern fairy story for teens. Combined with Naifeh’s dark and sexy illustrations that hint at foreboding in every panel (his pictures of the changing town are especially effective) this series is off to a great start. I’ll warn you now that it ends with a cliffhanger but sets up perfectly for the next book.

Be sure to catch me at chasingray.com for a week of author interviews this month and as always the collaborative blog guyslitwire.com is full of daily reviews and recommendations for teenage boys.

Cool Read: DK excels at publishing engaging general interest nonfiction titles for kids and teens and one of their latest, One Million Things: A Visual Encyclopedia is a perfect example of what they do best. The trick here is including relatively well known information on plants, animals, art and science but presenting it in unusual ways. Right off the bat the editors frame a double fold on the animal kingdom around an illustration of a lion sitting on a throne that is balanced on an aquarium. The red brocade and cherubs juxtaposed against a crustacean, snake and other representative creatures is a loud in-your-face assertion that this book is something special and the appealing design sense just continues to present itself on each page that follows.

You have snakes and lizards climbing up ladders, body systems such as lungs and digestion portrayed as knit-work crafts, a house of cards for the food pyramid and the work of artist Sean Rogg, who collected and displayed plastic water bottles from around the world, for a brief analysis of the planet’s most precious resource. Space exploration might not be a new subject but seeing a variety of international postage stamps displayed for historic milestones is very cool as is the glimpse of a paleontologist’s desk for a survey of fossils. Overall One Million Things is a modern take on the old fashioned encyclopedia that manages to be both serious about its content while also focusing on design in a new and refreshing way. It’s not just gorgeous, it’s fascinating (the two-page spreads on the continents offer a wealth of ideas all on their own), and as a complete package this title is an excellent choice for any inquisitive reader between the ages of six and sixteen.